Me: Uh uh uh! Don’t drop your coat there. Go hang it up in your cubby.
Nat: What, you don’t love me?Me: You’ve had enough chocolate for today. If you’re hungry I’ll get you something healthy to eat.
Nat: You guys won’t let me eat! You never feed me!
Me, listening to Nat read: Oops! Try again!
Nat: I’m so stupid! Why don’t you just cut off my head? I want to choke myself and die!
Learning to identify her feelings and put them into words has been the focus of most of Nat’s therapy, and she’s come a long way in that area. But is it possible to teach a black and white thinker to see shades of gray? I sure would like to be able to speak to Natalie in a firm voice without her jumping to the worst-case scenario; to think: mom’s frustrated with me, but she’ll get over it, rather than: mom doesn’t love me. For her to be able to make a mistake and think: reading sure is a struggle, and that feels pretty rotten, instead of overreacting and thinking: I’m so stupid!
I’m working really hard to not overreact myself when Nat says such troubling stuff. I don’t always succeed at it, but I’m trying. My goal is to help Natalie learn to see life’s grays, and then learn to use words to describe them. My strategy is to reframe Natalie’s black moments. I’m still proud of myself for how I handled one such incident last summer, so I’ll use it as an example.
Natalie and a girl I’ll call Sometimes Friend were on the outs at the time, and SF happened to be at the aquatic center at the same time as we were. Just seeing her there brought up all kinds of hurt feelings in Natalie. It was all Nat could do not to yell things at her, and she was sort of stalking her; keeping track of where she was in the pool and who she was playing with, and staring. I decided we needed to leave early, a decision Nat both appreciated and hated! An older woman walked near us as we headed toward the parking lot, and I was embarrassed to death by the scene she witnessed.
Natalie stomped, shook her fists, and screamed: “Just kill me! I just want to die!”
Geez, I thought, that lady will probably call the police! But cool as a cucumber, I reframed for her: “Are you really trying to say that it was very upsetting for you to see SF at the pool today?”
“YES!!!” she screamed. I acknowledged her feelings, and then we talked about how we could let it go and refocus on the rest of our day. (Damn, I was good!)
A really cool benefit for Natalie as she learns to use words to describe her grays is that the responses she’ll get from the people in her environment will be more positive. They’ll be able to address the real problem, rather than getting caught up in Nat’s scary, desperate words. I’d sure rather deal productively with hurt feelings than to panic at threats of suicide, especially given that the S word was never the real issue to begin with. Talk about creating drama!
A few weeks ago, at Natalie’s fall conference, her special ed teacher shared that in those situations at school when Natalie would typically yell, “I’m stupid!” she’s started to say instead, “This is hard for me!” That may seem like a small thing to most people, for Natalie, that’s huge. What wonderful progress!
Isn’t gray beautiful? I hope there are lots and lots of gray days in Natalie’s future.