A new season is upon us. The glow from the dawn of the new year is on the wane. For some of us, it is in the company of the resolutions to which we swore our allegiance before we climbed into bed at 9:30 on December 31 – satisfied that 2019 would arrive whether or not we were there to meet it. There is a lot about the holiday season I enjoy, but nothing more than when it is solidly behind us. Absent the anticipation and emotion that begins sometime before Halloween, we are left to the lull of ordinary that takes us from breakfast to bed for most of the rest of the year.
Lull is a relative term
Ordinary is that which we experience a majority of the time. For many of us, it has nothing to do with calm. We deal with trauma-driven behavior that expresses fear, uncertainty, and insatiable need. It comes in the form of emotional outbursts, food hoarding, defiance, lying, stealing, poor personal hygiene, perfectionism, indifference, and shut-down. We learn to move between catastrophes as a cloud moves through storms – smoothly, gracefully, and occasionally letting loose.
It is easy to get lost in the clouds, or to feel that we are stuck in the catastrophe stream, but there are also bright spots in every single day. Really! Sometimes we must rise above the clouds to see them, but they are there. The thing about the bright spots is that unless we deliberately stop to notice them, they do not register as a part of our experience.
Experience shapes the brain
Our neural circuitry is formed by the happenings of every day, by our thoughts, feelings, and the ways we react to them. Our brains are shaped by the things we pay attention to, but somehow catastrophes count for more. The human brain is vulnerable to negative experiences. According to psychologist and resilience expert, Rick Hanson, “negative experiences yesterday make us more vulnerable to them today, which then sensitizes us even more to the negative tomorrow.”
“Unfortunately” writes Hanson, “there’s no comparable process of sensitization to positive experiences.” In order to avoid, or counteract, the stress in our lives, we must mindfully direct our attention to the bright spots. We can find many ways of doing this, like watching the sun rise in the morning, or stepping outside to take in the perfume that fills the air after a rainstorm, or feeling the earth soften begins to awaken during a thaw. When we notice what feels good, we feel good – but we have to stop to notice.
As the parents of children with special needs, we often feel the stress of overwhelm. Some days, just getting through seems all-consuming. Developmental trauma is a relational disorder. Because it plays out in our interactions with our children, our relationships may feel like the source of our stress. If we do not take time to notice the pleasant things that happen every day, we enter into a space in which any interaction feels like a catastrophe.
Consciously celebrate the positive
When you remind yourself that in spite of the fact that she can’t clean up a mess, your daughter has a delightful sense of humor, you are shifting away from the catastrophe and toward the celebration. When you pause to feel your son stroke your face just because, or focus on the joy in your daughter’s voice when she tells you about her day, you begin to internalize the good. When we acknowledge the positive often and consistently we begin to change our neural circuitry. Hanson suggests that when we notice beneficial experiences, they help us to register that “in this moment we are basically all right. […] It may not be a great moment, a perfect moment, but it is basically all right.”
Remind yourself that you’re all right
We don’t always feel good about this parenting thing, but when we can take each season as it comes, stand in the moment, and celebrate even a tiny bright spot, we build resilience. Noticing the good and allowing ourselves to feel joy lowers our stress. Celebrating helps us to meet our children (and ourselves) with a greater sense of calm and ease.
Pausing to appreciate the good things that exist in every day doesn’t mean we avoid challenges, or abandon difficulties, or neglect to plan for the future. It means we acknowledge that within the roiling of catastrophe, there is always something to celebrate. We acknowledge the celetastrophe of every day.
Cel-e-tas-tro-phe: /ˈselə ˈtastrəfē/
We cannot step away from our reality, but we can choose to participate with the positive. If you are thinking that you do not have the time, or the energy, or the resources for change, you are standing neck-deep in the catastrophe. Take one giant step forward (I mean this literally: stand up and take a step forward!) It is symbolic, but a gesture of your willingness – your intention – to see the bright spots. You work hard. You deserve to have a little fun, a little joy in every day.
What you can do (no heavy lifting needed)
Start with a celebration
We never know what will happen later, so why not get a jump on the day by intentionally waking to bright spots. Take a few deep breaths and celebrate the soothing, smooth, fruity notes in your first cup of coffee. Celebrate the ground that always supports you. Celebrate the messy hair and high-water pajamas that sit around the breakfast table (theirs or yours or both).
Prepare for the catastrophe
When our children are ignoring us, or lying to us, or throwing things at us, we may not be thinking about how much we adore them when they are not doing these things. We have to keep a bit of positive in reserve. Take a moment every day to remind yourself of something you love about each of your children. On the more difficult days, it may be the shape of her fingers, or the way he labored to learn to tie his shoes. No matter how you do it, remind yourself every day to step, with intention, into the love, to let it fill you, to direct it to the parts of you that hurt, and let it heal you.
Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat
This is especially important when you sense a catastrophe rising. Stop to notice your fear and acknowledge your emotion. Look for something to distract yourself to prevent you from escalating in the face of your child’s behavior. Listen to what your child is trying to communicate. When we are able to receive the message without reacting to the behavior, we minimize the overall catastrophe. Repeat because it takes practice. Parenting is an endurance sport that we have to practice no matter the season.
End with a Celebration.
Even if you are only celebrating the fact that the day is over, even if you stumbled all the way through, even if you didn’t meet the lofty expectations you set for yourself, take a moment to rise above the clouds and see that you did the best you could.
Dance, sing, laugh out loud. Halloween is still months away. Step into the moment and enjoy the season of celetastrophe!
Hanson, R. (2017). Positive neuroplasticity: The neuroscience of mindfulness. In Loizzo, J., Neale, M., Wolf, E., Eds. (2017). Advances in contemplative psychotherapy: Accelerating healing and transformation. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.embodiedphilosophy.com/issue/on-the-new-science-of-spirit/