Mama Gone Green is a blog dedicated to raising happy children and reducing our impact on the Earth. My name is Taryn and I am the mother of 2 young kids and an environmental studies instructor at a community college in Portland, Oregon. Please join me as I journey through life as a mama, teacher, knitter, photographer, gardener, and environmentalist!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Finding Finn

This post has been a long time coming, but, until now,  I haven't been able to find the time, energy, or courage to write about it.
Finn. My first born. My sweet boy. The child who made me a mother, who has made me realize how hard mothering can be, and who has shown me all of the rewards that come along with it. I have known, for a long time, that Finn is not your run-of-the-mill kid. He is 'normal' (whatever that is), most of the time, but also has some idiosyncrasies that have made me wonder more than once if there was more going on inside his head than we realized.
Consistent emotional outbursts that seem out of place for a child his age. Throwing a tantrum with screaming and crying at the beginning of each session of swim lessons, even though he enjoys being in the water. Refusing to use the potty at school unless I am there. Screaming about how hungry/thirsty/tired he is every time we get in the car. Running away from new children who try to engage him in play at the park. Refusing to even open his mouth for the dentist to have an exam. And so on, and so on.
But in between these spurts of emotion, Finn is an extremely bright, extremely wonderful boy. He is so sweet, has lots of friends who he is very outgoing with, and at age 4, communicates better than most 6 year olds I know.
My husband, who doesn't spend as much time around other children, always acted like I was crazy when I brought this up. In his mind, Finn was acting exactly like all of the other children his age, and there was nothing different about him at all. But I knew that there was. I just wasn't sure what it was.
After much hemming and hawing we decided to see a family therapist. More than anything, I just wanted to learn some coping techniques on how to deal with Finn when he was acting "out". How to help transition him to new situations, how to ease his fears, etc. I was nervous to take the plunge and see a counselor...  felt like it meant that I thought something was seriously wrong with our child, or that I wasn't capable enough to take care of him. I was sad that my innate mothering instincts were not telling me how to deal. But, his outbursts were causing me to get stressed, frustrated and confused, and instead of being the extra-patient mother that he needed, I was becoming more angry and exhausted. So, we went.
And the experience was good. The counselor, like myself, felt that Finn was a normal kid- who happened to have some not-so-normal behaviors. Just having this confirmation that Finn was a bit different felt good to me,-- that I wasn't crazy for wondering why he acted the way he did. But, I was also assured that his different behaviors didn't signify any major sociological disorders, like autism, which was also good to know. But, these sessions also left me longing.... OK, so he is different, but why? and now what?
Right after the first counselor session, I found a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Child. As soon as I was a chapter in, I knew I had figured it out. This was Finn. The examples the author used were like excerpts from my real life. Highly sensitive people, who make up about 15% of the population,  are just more aware of everything... from feelings, to other people's reactions and perceptions, to minute details of a situation. These are the kids who are bothered by scratchy fabrics, feel their hunger more acutely, and who notice every change or inconsistency. And, depending on how they deal with this overwhelming amount of information and feeling, they can sometimes act in unexpected ways.
Finn is highly sensitive, and, while reading this book, I discovered that I am too. I am maybe less sensitive than Finn, but we share many of the same traits. Finn is just much more intense in the way in which he deals with these feelings. Now it made sense that Finn refuses to wear jeans, because until high school, I was exactly the same way. I wear them almost every day now, but they used to make me feel trapped and confined. Finn feels the exact same way and prefers pants with elastic waists. Now I understand why he cries for food and water every time we get into the car.. because his body, now strapped into a car seat, is finally calm enough to figure out what it needs. However, since Finn and I deal with our issues so differently, it never crossed my mind that our feelings could be the same. For example, while Finn and I may both feel extremely nervous and hesitant entering a new group of people, my way to deal with it is to be friendly and try to conform and just fit in and not draw too much attention to myself. Finn's reaction to the same situation would be to scream, kick, and maybe lash out at someone. His body just processes his feelings differently than I do. This is something that I assume he will eventually outgrow, but I know that I need to be an extra patient and understanding mother while he is making that transition. And I am so afraid that I am not patient enough to do that, to be the mother he really needs. I want to, and I am trying, but it is really tough.
So, it feels good to have a label on Finn's actions, to know why he is acting the way he does, and to know that there is nothing wrong with him. But, this book was also very overwhelming for me. It spoke many times about how parenting highly sensitive children is hard, but so important, because of their sensitivity (basically, like one big mess up and you scar them for life). Pressure! Plus, the ways to parent these children, at least according to this book, are very different for many situations. And, it made me feel like I have been a huge failure of a parent to Finn so far. Let's take the swim lesson example. Finn never wanted to start a new session, but as soon as he was a day or two in, he loved it and couldn't wait to go. So, each time a new session started, he would throw a fit and freak out. And-- I would push him and make him get in the water, knowing that he would have fun in the end. The book even used that exact example, citing that parents who pushed their children into swim lessons ended up harming their self confidence, blah blah blah. I won't bore you with details, but I felt like a failure. I sort of still do, except I am giving myself credit for trying now. I just wish that when your baby was born, someone would say he, he is "this" or "that" and here is how you should parent him. Instead, as we all know, it is a game of trial and error, and I just hope that I haven't zapped his self confidence too much for him to be a success later in life. I hope he doesn't look back at me when he is older and think about how his mom really screwed him up. Because did I? Am I?
I am now reading Taming the Spirited Child, which also seems to describe Finn's temperament exactly. I am hoping that, with some more reading, observing, and pondering, I will find the best way to help Finn, and to help myself, when he is having trouble dealing with his over-stimulation. Since I am also highly sensitive, I like (need) to have a plan of action. I need to know what to do when a situation arises, otherwise I will default to autopilot, which is normally a short tempered frustrated person.
This knowledge, although tremendous and powerful, is also challenging. I know that I need to take time for myself so that I can stay calm. I know that for a long time, I will have to anticipate Finn's outbursts and be prepared to deal. I know that I will have to continue to take lots of extra time for transitions and not be upset when things don't work out how they are supposed to. It is going to be hard, but at least I think we are on the right path. And that is something I can be happy about.

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  1. You know, kids are just so different. I remember reading somewhere about how shy kids weren't normal. you know the kids that cling to their parents and dont talk to adults. the author (i dont remember where i read this) was basically saying that homeschooled kids are not like this or something like that. well my oldest (5) is definitely that way. she wont even look people she doesn't know in the eye when they are talking to her. she stares at the ground. she's been going to gymnastics since february and she still doesn't talk to her teammates or coaches. she loves it and does what they say, but she doesn't talk. another girl her age will come up and talk to her and she just stares at them like they are crazy. she also goes absolutely berserk at the doctor's office and because of that ive been putting off the dentist. im sure she will clamp her mouth shut and no one will be able to open it. oh well. i don't know.

  2. Oh my goodness, please don't feel so guilty. Every mom tries her best. You know your son, and the authors of books don't know everything. You are a sensitive person, your mom never read this book and still managed to raise you to be a competent functioning adult. I think the best thing you can do as a parent is teach Finn the skills he needs to cope in uncomfortable situations. Tackle one scenario at a time and practice. I used to do this with my kindergarten kids and now with my son. I'd say, when you meet someone new, you say, ....then they will say.... And we would make a game of it and practice it with each other, teddy bears etc., so whe the real thing happened, the child had the skill set to deal with it. They make still freak, but eventually with exposure and practice, these news skills will replace the fear. And I think this society puts too much emphasis on self esteem and self confidence. We gain these things through successful encounters and experiences, which we can learn to

    1. I don't think encouraging your son to participate in swim class has ruined his life forever. You could always apologize and say mommy pushed you to join the class because she knew you would have fun, but maybe you weren't quite ready yet. Let's talk about ways to make this easier next time. What if we arrive a few minutes early to give you a chance to get used to the pool, etc. I'm not a child psychologist or a book author, but I really do think you and Finn are going to be fine. Now you have a better understanding of the problem and you love him, you will find ways to help him be successful. Relax, no guilt, your little guy will grow up to be an amazing person, those sensitive qualities will make him a great dad and husband one day, you'll see.

  3. Oh mama, give yourself a hug. We all do our best with the information we have at a particular time. When we get new information we can choose to make change or stay the same. You cannot change anything you have done in the past, you can only look forward, use the new information you are finding, if it rings true to you and then go forward.

    My little man is what I always called a high needs and sensitive baby. He wanted to be held, but not cuddled, he wanted me and no one else. We went through a stage of outbursts that came out of nowhere and surprised both my hubby and me. I validated his feelings and that made things worse. But then I realized with some help that by validating it gave him the permission he needed to let it all out...whatever was kept inside. It was tough, but we are on the other side of it, I think. He is better able to express his feelings now and seems to be coping better, and I am too.

    It is all a journey. The one thing that keeps my head up and my heart smiling is I am told high needs sensitive children grow up to be very empathic and compassionate adults.

  4. I am so, so glad that you are starting to find answers. You shouldn't blame yourself for the time it took to get here...there is no way we can know all the answers without lots of seeking. And I think that is especially true for first-born children. I think sometimes about how I would have done things differently with Evan, ways we pushed him too early because that is what other people were doing, or because, like Finn, his language skills tripped us up and made us forget how young he really was. But we are learning with them and your son will grow as you do, remembering more from the present than from the past. Mostly, I think what we can show them is empathy and an effort to hear the things they are trying to communicate. You have obviously done that quite well. I wish you all the best and hope that things improve!

  5. *hugs*

    I can relate to wondering why your child acts the way they do, and if something could be "wrong"or if they are normal (whatever that is!)

    It's wonderful that you are getting to know your son and trying so hard to understand him. I'm sure that any past "mistakes" will not be as big of a deal in the grand scheme of parenting, and most of all he will know how much he is loved and cared for.

  6. I think there are more high sensitives out there than we realize - I am a high sensitive & was as a child. My father is too. I have been reading a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Many high sensitives are also introverted (not all but most) and understanding this side of their personality as well may be helpful. I wish you all the best with Finn - he sounds like an awesome kid!

  7. Oh, Taryn, what a wonderful mama you are to take all this time and energy to try to help F navigate this crazy world of ours. He is so very lucky to have you for a mama. Sending many hugs and much love your way. I don't think that life ever hands us things that we can't handle. It may seem hopeless at times, but if we're calm and open, solutions always present themselves, I believe. You are doing a great job. :)

  8. I can relate to this so much as Sophie is spirited and sensitive too. Hates to wear jeans and didn't until 4th grade,any tag or glitter or elastic is just too much and she wont wear it. Thank god for cotton. She had the same issues with swimming lessons when she was little, I had to sit with my feet in the pool with her at first. She was terrified at Birthday parties too, I was always the last parent to leave(and often was the only parent to stay).
    Good for you to get help when you need it. I never did with Sophie and we have major communication problems, she refuses to follow rules and still has temper tantrums at 11 years old. I wish I had a manual for her as my first baby, but I didn't. I know I reacted badly, and didn't do the right thing and I blame myself for her bad behavior. I wonder if we are too far down a bad road to ever get it right.