Finding Ourselves on the Autism Spectrum

Coping with feelings

I read something at Alienhippy’s Blog towards the end of December, when I was brand new to the blog world, that really stuck with me: 

“I think that the lack of empathy thing is just a shut down mechanism of self protection because emotion is so intense …”  (You can find the rest of the post here http://alienhippy.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/toys-and-empathy/ .)

That was one of the first things I read that let me know I had come to the right place – someplace where another person had actually felt some of what I felt and understood.   Up until recently, that was a very rare experience for me.  I’ve had quite a few of these moments since then, and I am so grateful to have met so many wonderful new friends.

 In my “Figuring It Out” post I wrote about my difficulty in accepting negative feelings in my kids.  I had come to the conclusion that this had something to do with my feeling responsible for fixing things.  As the mom of a child on the spectrum, it always feels like I’m the one who has to handle a problem, because no one else seems to understand what to do.  So I’m constantly on my guard for things that look like problems, and I’m anxious because the truth is I don’t always know what to do.  I’m also afraid that if I don’t figure out what to do pretty quickly or if I get it wrong, the problem will get bigger, and everyone will suffer as a result.  Seeing that typed out makes it seem like an awful lot to ask of myself.  But it’s what I’ve been doing for all these years, and it gives me a sense of fulfillment to make such a meaningful difference in my child’s life.  I just have to learn what is truly helpful and what is just stress.

I think there’s something else happening in the anxiety I experience over other people’s feelings, and over my kids’ feelings, in particular.  All my life I’ve been overwhelmed by any strong emotions in myself or others.   When my parents would argue, I shut down.  When other girls picked on me, it was the same thing.  Instead of expressing or even just processing something, when it got to be too much, I turned it all off so that I could keep on functioning and doing what I needed to do.   It wasn’t that I didn’t feel anything.  It was that I didn’t know how to respond or what to do about it, and I couldn’t tolerate that state of extreme anxiety for very long, so I found a way to make it stop altogether.  The thing about stopping emotions is that you seem to have to stop all or none of them, so I ended up blocking a lot of good stuff, too.  Thus began my ongoing relationship with depression. 

My kids have plenty of their own difficult feelings, and each of them has a tendency to get overwhelmed pretty quickly.  Simon has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and I know Alvin well enough to know that he has a worse time with anxiety even than Simon.  Little Theo is only seven, so it’s hard to know how much of his reaction to things is just because he’s so young.   What is hard for me to experience with all my kids is that they don’t seem to do this shutting down thing – at least not around me.  Each of them – even Simon now to a large extent – is holding it together through their school day and through some other activities.   Then they come home, and I get to enjoy the aftermath.   Being confronted with a bunch of unrestrained energy and emotion from three different individuals is just not something that I came equipped to handle. 

I find myself a lot of the time either trying to fix what’s bothering my kids so they can be happy or brushing off their feelings in the hopes of not having to deal with them.   I’m wondering if maybe my not wanting to be around their negative feelings is because I’m afraid of experiencing those feelings myself.   If I allow myself to feel what they are feeling along with them, I’m afraid I will be overwhelmed.   It makes me anxious when I am confronted with a stressful situation and I’m not already in an optimal state of mind, because then I don’t have access to my instincts, and my instincts are what I trust to help me make good decisions.  

A while back I started reading a copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and a great deal of it is about the healing effect of just letting your child express a feeling and letting them know that you hear what they are saying without trying to fix or judge anything.   This is completely counter-intuitive to me, because like the authors and much of their audience, I hadn’t experienced a lot of that myself growing up, and my own spectrum issues don’t make it any easier for me to pick these things up on my own. I’ve managed to try this approach on some occasions – ackowledging or reflecting back a child’s feelings without adding any emotional charge of my own to the situation – and the results are truly amazing, even with my spectrum son.   It turns out they do have the capacity to work some things out for themelves and even to calm themselves down, and when they still need some help, we’re all in a better state of mind to figure out what to do next. 

I’m starting to see why this approach is so powerful, given the effect that blogging and exchanging ideas is having on me.   Having a place to express myself and a community of people who will respond with encouragement and understanding  allows me to release a lot of what’s bottled up inside and to relieve some of the pressure.  It allows me to breathe and opens up a space where there’s room to care about others.  Thank you all for that.

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Comments on: "Coping with feelings" (20)

  1. ‘letting your child express a feeling and letting them know that you hear’
    Absolutely!

  2. Ok, I have tried to write something three times now and I just can’t get it out.

    So I will say this, I relate to a lot of what you are saying here and it adds some insight to what I may be dealing with concerning anxiety about my kids.

    I try to listen to my kids and let them express themselves freely as much as possibly but there are moments, especially when they are having similar fears or anxiety as mine. For some reason I can get really freaked out and shut down because if I can’t fix it in me, how am I going to help them?

    Well for one I guess I should start with, they are not me.

    Thanks for giving me some things to ponder!
    Angel

    • Hi, Angel.

      It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has some difficulty in this area. I like your insight that our kids are not ourselves.

      I can get very overwhelmed with the notion that if life has been this hard for me – when I seem to have better coping mechanisms than my son, and when he seems to have so many more difficulties – how is he possibly going to manage? I’m trying to remind myself that my son is receiving a lot of help and support that I didn’t have growing up, and that he has already improved tremendously beyond what I thought he might, so I can’t really project how things will be for him as he gets older.

      It sounds very reasonable to me, but I still have those moments when fear grips my heart, and I have to find a way to turn that off in order to function and get through to the next moment. I pray a lot, and usually it helps. I think the next few years are going to be very tough for me. I’m not great with not knowing how things are going to turn out. But this is how we grow, right? 🙂

      I’m glad you left a comment. I’m hoping we can all help each other through these difficult times.

      Diane

  3. I found myself nodding my head at much of what you wrote. I feel overwhelmed sometimes by other people’s emotions, too. I think I mentioned this on your other post that my dad has an impossible time dealing with other people’s negative emotions and for a long time now, I have suspected that he just can’t handle them, which is why he shuts down or gets angry.

    Anyway, I must get a copy of that book–I definitely need some help in this area. It’s funny, because I think I am fairly good at validating friends and just listening, but when it comes to my kids it’s so much harder. I just want to make those bad feelings go away. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do!

    • Hi, Patty.

      I think family history plays a big part in how we handle things like difficult emotions. We all do the best we can, but our parents leave marks on our personalities, and we leave them on those of our kids. One thing I remember with my mom – mostly because I now see it in myself – is a tendency to take a situation and make it as much about her feelings as about mine. She’s actually a very wise and helpful woman, but her initial reaction to anything uncomfortable when I was growing up seemed to be fear/worry. And when I was going through something, it didn’t really help to feel responsible for her feelings, as well as my own. I don’t like that my kids sometimes feel responsible for me being upset when they are having a difficulty.

      I think I do okay in dealing with people who are already somewhat calm in their expression of what they’re going through. I can listen attentively and be supportive and not try and tell them what they should do. It’s with more intense displays of emotions that I tend to be at a loss for what to say or do. And with my kids, it feels like it’s my responsibility to say or do something, because I’m the mom. With regard to my Aspie son, he sometimes really needs for someone to help him through one of his “moments”, as we call them, because he doesn’t always have the capacity to navigate his way out on his own. So it’s even harder to figure out when I need to help and when I just need to listen.

      There is other information that I’m sure is very useful in that book I mentioned – particularly the stuff about using fewer words when communicating. A very insightful speech therapist recently recommended the same approach in a meeting at the school. Extra verbalizing tends to be overwhelming and difficult to process, so fewer words with clearer meanings are more useful. I haven’t gotten much past that point, because I’m still trying so hard to put what I’ve already read into practice 🙂

      Focusing on this while writing really helped me to remember to do this better yesterday, and I was pretty pleased with the results with all my kids. Hope I can remember today. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

      Diane

  4. Aspergirl Maybe said:

    I can definitely relate to the depression response to being overwhelmed with emotions. My most common reaction has been to escape into a book, or sometimes TV. It is easier for me to get away with since I only have one child, but I know that it hasn’t been good for him.

    Lately, both he and I have matured a bit and I have been able to talk to him about how I might need a break sometimes and then I can come back and be ready to play with him or do whatever we need to do. We can even set the timer to manage his anxiety about waiting for me and to remind me that when it’s time to engage again.

    On the empathy side, I usually buy myself some time while also using it as a teaching opportunity by saying something like, “That sounds like it felt really disappointing. How disappointing was it?” He likes to rate things and it helps us both figure out how upset he really is. Hopefully by the time he has calmed down a bit, I will have an idea or can just ask him, “What do you think will help you feel better?”

    Thanks for sharing this – it’s great to be able to work through all of these things together, as you mentioned earlier!

    • HI, Aspergirl Maybe.

      These sound like terrific ideas! Sounds like you’ve found some things that really work. I think it will help me a lot if I can, as you say, “buy myself some time” and not feel like I have to deal with something right this very minute. That’s a pressure I put on myself when I’m feeling anxious. When I do come back to an issue after a little time has passed, I am usually much better at being genuinely helpful and being able to ask the right questions. Thanks for sharing your experience and providing such a great suggestion.

      I often need to escape into something like a TV program or a book in order to shut off the flow of negative ideas in my mind. Once I just don’t feed that anymore, it usually dissipates on its own. More and more I’ve found that to be the case with my Aspie son, too.

  5. It’s really helpful to read your experiences to help me understand BB better. ‘Overwhelmed and shutting down’ – yes, that definitely strikes a chord.

    • Hi, bbsmum.

      It’s always good to hear from you. Hearing from parents of kids who are less verbal helps reinforce for me how much all of us on the spectrum really do have in common. Seeing how difficult things can be for me and for my highly verbal son, it also humbles me to know how many individuals have to struggle every day without being able to talk through any of it in the way that we’ve found so helpful. You’re a hero in my book for working so diligently to try and see things from your child’s point of view. He is very blessed to have you.

      Diane

  6. Hi Diane 😀

    I can relate to a lot of the feelings you’ve expressed in this post.

    I’ve suffered from depression since I was 9 years old but my own feelings (and diagnosis of my depression) were overlooked because my mother had major mental health problems herself – including schizophrenia, bio-polar disorder and a tendency to go to hospital for 6 weeks at a time for more electric shock therapy (which actually helped her and helped bring her back to reality).

    As a youngster, roles were reversed (and they still are) and I’ve spent many years watching out for signs in my mother, to see if she’s heading for another bout of illness…I feel the need to constantly protect her…

    …but this is where being observant in a bid to help can actually become problematic…..I sometimes bring tension as a result of observing my mum so closely as she often feels smothered by my attention…I look for problems/signs in her behaviour that are not actually there and, as a result, don’t always allow myself to breath/relax and enjoy the good times as much. I’m getting better at this and am slowly realising that I cannot avert the onset – or symptoms – of her illness and that I have to live my own life too…whilst loving her at the same time.

    I’m just saying this because, whilst we love our families, we also have to give them a little space…and be there for them when they need it, not necessarily when we think they do.

    Hope you have a good day my friend 😀
    Chloe xx

    • Hi, Chloe.

      I’m very glad to hear from you. Your experience with your mom sounds pretty overwhelming. My husband’s mom had enough difficulty with depression to warrant hospital stays and electric shock therapy, which helped her, as well. She had a heart attack when she was about my age, and the resulting oxygen deprivation left her mostly non-verbal, so I’m sorry to say I never got to know her.

      My own mom has always struggled with depression, as have other members of my family. She’s hooked me up with some good books with cognitive approaches that I’ve found to be very helpful (when I actually use them :)). She has also been in Alanon for many years – not associated with any active drinking in the household in which I grew up – and she’s shared a great deal of wisdom from that experience that can apply to many other situations. Realizing we are powerless over a particular condition and that still there are things we can do to bring joy and peace to our lives in the midst of what we cannot change about another person or ourselves is of huge benefit. I have my own copies of the One Day at a Time books (older and new version), and when I’m trying to hard to manage things that are out of my control, reading those often helps me to regain a healthy perspective.

      Thank you for sharing your insight and experience. I find reminders from good friends stay with me longer than just having these ideas rattling around in my own head.

      Have a good day yourself 🙂

      Diane

      • Hi Diane

        I’m so sorry it’s taken a long time to reply to your lovely reponse to my comment. I’ve been busy decorating my little flat and making it look SOoooo lovely that it should now feature in a Home Designs magazine! lol 😉

        Thanks for your suggestions of how to cope with depression (or mental health conditions in general) – it IS about perspective and finding ways in which we can enjoy aspects of life and work around the problems.

        I’m about to go for CBT myself (after being on a waiting list for over a year!) and am hoping that it will help give me some of the coping tools required. I’ve never read the One Day at a Time books – but think I will check them out. Every little bit of help is a blessing really.

        Hope today is a good day for you !
        Chloe xx

      • Hi, Chloe.

        I’m glad to hear your decorating has been so rewarding. How wonderful to be able to live in a space you’ve made to your own liking.

        If you feel like sharing, I’d be very interested to hear anything you find helpful in the CBT – I’m always looking for useful ideas, for myself and to pass on to others. Those little books have been quite helpful to me, as long as I remember to do some mental editing around anything specifically focused on alcoholism. Most of the principles are pretty useful for dealing with any situation that we can’t control and have to live with on an ongoing basis. Plus the pages are pretty short, so it works when my attention span isn’t ready for anything more involved, which happens more often than I like 🙂

        I hope today is a good one for you, as well. Great hearing from you.

  7. Hello Diane,
    What a wonderful post!!
    “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk”…I think this sums up everything.
    My Mom used to say to me when I was a kid, “We have 2 ears and 1 mouth, we all need to use them in that proportion. ”
    She also use to say, “It takes many little drips to fill a bucket”
    I know most of her quotes came from other places, and some from the Bible. They really help me, not when I was a kid, because I hadn’t got a clue what she was talking about. Now though I find they come back, they’re in my loops and…well I believe God uses them to keep me moving forward.
    Or…”Keep on swimming, swimming, swimming!” as Dory says in finding Nemo. I just love kids films
    What you said here is wonderful….
    Having a place to express myself and a community of people who will respond with encouragement and understanding allows me to release a lot of what’s bottled up inside and to relieve some of the pressure. It allows me to breathe and opens up a space where there’s room to care about others.
    This is exactly how I feel.
    Love and hugs my friend.
    Lisa. xx 🙂

    • Hi, Lisa.

      It’s lovely to hear from you, and I’m so glad you liked my post.

      “We have 2 ears and 1 mouth, we all need to use them in that proportion. ” I absolutely love this!

      I really love kids’ films, too. They remind me of the important messages in life that we want to teach our children and would do better to remember as adults.

      Have a wonderful weekend.

      Love and Peace,

      Diane

  8. This whole topic is a big problem for me. So overwhelming that I don’t even know how to talk about it. But it helps to read what you and the others are saying here. It’s a hard thing for me to absorb. I have always found it very hard to know how to respond to my kids’ negative emotions.

    • Hi, Isabel. It’s good to hear from you. It seems to me from your comments that I’ve read here and there that we have some things in common. It’s OK to not be ready to talk. That’s still very new and a bit strange for me. I’m glad the reading helps. It helps me a lot. Knowing that it isn’t just me makes a big difference.

      I hope we’ll keep running into each other. I’m very glad you stopped by.

      Diane

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