I am an emotional creature. Like, really emotional. I sob at cheesy movies and cartwheel around my yard when I’m really happy. (OK, maybe those cartwheels are only in my head. But the emotion is there!) I get weepy at the slightest provocation. I’ve had anxiety all my life. I don’t get angry very often, but when I do, I feel it from the heat in my heart to the tingle in the tips of my fingers and toes.
Emotions have always influenced my parenting. I was all about attachment when my kids were babies, validating their feelings as toddlers, and making sure they know how powerfully I love them always. It never occurred to me that (with the obvious exception of anger) my emotions could get in the way of effective parenting. It also never occurred to me that even if I hid my anger or frustration behind a calm voice, even if I spoke positively to him while silently despairing that he would ever learn, what I was feeling on the inside had a huge effect on the message my ASD kid got from me.
I understood that actively losing my temper would upset him. I knew that issuing demands or consequences in the heat of anger was a bad idea. But I had no idea that my concealed anxiety would make him anxious too.
The second time Karla came to my house, she had an assignment for me. She asked me to light a candle as Nick sat next to me. As the flame strengthened, she started to explain her purpose: “Look at him.” I glanced at Nick and saw him completely enthralled by the flame. Karla had me look at the flame for 30 seconds and then close my eyes and visualize it. This was a relaxation exercise, the goal being to focus on that one thing and just BE. “Be the flame.” Nick had no problem doing this and had in fact focused immediately and completely on that flame. I, on the other hand, had a really hard time thinking about the flame and nothing but the flame.
This was no surprise to Karla. I found out later that she had sensed my anxiety throughout our first meeting, even though I had done my best to appear calm and cheerful. It had made her even more anxious than she already was, going to a new house to meet new people. She guessed that Nick was the same way–that he could be sensing the stress I was trying so hard to hide. Since his emotional regulation was almost nonexistent, it was crucial that I learn to regulate my own emotions so that he did not have the added stress of absorbing my stress.
Even when I am at my most relaxed physically, I have a really hard time relaxing my brain. And while I can control my outward expression of emotion, I had never been able to actually stop feeling stressful emotion, to actually send it out of me. Honestly, I didn’t think that was within my control. I thought I just had to wait them out.
Karla wanted me to learn how to genuinely relax and stay calm inside and out. She assigned me to watch the flame every day and to let Nick see me doing it, saying he would respect my efforts to learn how to be the flame and possibly join me. (Coincidentally, or not, Nick loves to start fires. He is always the self-appointed fire tender when we go camping, and he will often ask to light a fire in our fireplace even on a warm day. This is one reason I am so glad he’s a rule-follower. He knows where fires are and are not allowed!)
As it turned out, the flame analogy didn’t work very well for me, but one weekend on a trip to the coast, I found one that did. Now I am ocean, calm and soothing, but also powerful. I can watch the ocean for a long time and not think of anything but ocean. It helps that the ocean is not a simple thing–I can watch (or imagine) the waves move, then watch the far-off waters sit in apparent calm, then watch the edge of the sea approach and retreat endlessly. It’s all ocean. I can be ocean.
Of course that wasn’t enough for someone who has been anxious and emotional all her life. I am a therapy “lifer” so I turned my sessions away from bemoaning the baggage of my past and toward focusing on the here and now and what I could do to take charge of my emotions. I started spending time with Karla myself to absorb her positivity and zest for life, and to learn more about speaking this language called Autism and how seeing the world in a black-and-white way can be a good thing.
The challenge was to be able to get through stressful parenting moments not just acting calm, but actually being calm.
Part 2 will be about learning to parent unemotionally, and how it brought us more happiness.