I have known that my youngest’s psychomotor intensity can be exhausting to parent. The non-stop chatter and bouncing and moving and singing and fidgeting, and spinning and dancing and running frequently leaves me over stimulated and needing a break. But, I’ve never really thought about his intensity being hazardous to my health.
What got me thinking about this is that oft quoted stat that moms of autistic children have the same levels of stress as combat soldiers. Our brains have been wired to be on high alert and to be living in a constant state of reactive fight or flight to the same degree as our service men and women. And from what I’ve seen and experienced, our similarities don’t stop there.
I know. It’s all over the place. Our kids are too entertained. We need to let them get bored. Boredom isn’t bad. Boredom is the breeding ground for creativity. Don’t be a helicopter parent. Remember your childhood of the 70’s or 80’s. You’re their parent, not their playmate.
Even with all that, I still refuse to let my child get bored.
When my child gets bored, she melts down. She finds nothing productive to do with her downtime. Sure, she gets creative, but only to think up innovative ways to torture her brothers or trigger massive family chaos and conflict. She cannot tolerate boredom. Welcome to the world of twice exceptionality.
In some ways, her brain works very fast and is very creative and needs a lot of stimulation to be satisfied. In other words, she bores easily. In other ways, she doesn’t yet have the executive functioning skills to be planful or focused or regulate emotions well or problem solve effectively when she’s just a tiny bit dysregulated. So, she bores easily and can’t find ways to resolve it. Hello meltdown.
Boredom is an emotion like any other emotion. And, like any other emotion, it isn’t all good or all bad. It can be unpleasant, but it also can be the trigger to amazing new creations. The tricky part comes when we have children who cannot yet tolerate unpleasant emotions. It’s hard to get to the helpful parts of an emotion if we can’t first tolerate it.
Yes, I think, in general, our kids need more boredom in their lives. My sons get kicked outside with “nothing to do” amid grumbles and groans regularly. They manage to find something and end up more engaged and with more regulated bodies and souls than before they were bored. But, they have the skills to tolerate and regulate their unpleasant emotions.
Our kids need more boredom in their lives, as they are ready. We need to teach the emotion regulation skills that help them be prepared for boredom. Our kids need distress tolerance skills built up, and we probably need to coach most of our 2e and gifted kids on what those distress tolerance skills look like. They might need visual prompts or lists of boredom busters or baskets of stress tools that help them regulate when they are feeling icky. We need to tiptoe into the boredom to give them small exposure to it so they can build up their tolerance.
Managing boredom is a learned skill, and sometimes we forget that our primary job is to be teaching our children how to function in this complex world. They are not born with the skill to manage boredom. Think about a bored infant. What do they do? They scream until somebody comes and entertains them. Our asyncronistic, development atypical kids might still be screaming until somebody comes and teaches them how to entertain themselves. I lucked out. My sons were both able to teach themselves how to be self-entertained at an early age. Cub could flip through books, crawl around, and play hide and seek with himself for hours when he was 6 months old. But, it is unfair to expect that every child will be able to do the same. It is unfair to became angry with my daughter when she cannot do the same things.
It is also unfair to set her up to fail by subjecting her to something before she has the requisite skills. And so, unless I’m intentionally helping her tiptoe into it to develop her new skills, I will continue to refuse to let my daughter get bored.
My friend and I have been counting down the days of summer for at least the last 2 weeks. And not in the sad to see it go kind of way, but in the can’t these days go faster kind of way. Our fringy kids do not do well with the looser structure of summer. And it seems no matter how much of our own structure we add to the days, it just still isn’t enough. Summer sucks.
And so, we look forward to school. We look forward to 8 peaceful hours without mega meltdowns and the luxury of someone else planning all the structure our kids can ask for.
This was actually the first year that my friend’s child would be going to all day school, so her excitement and eagerness had 5 years to build. She was ready. She was more than ready.
And then I got the text the morning of her child’s first day of school. She hadn’t slept a single moment as her stomach and heart somersaulted through the night. Her mind raced with images of her child not fitting in, struggling in school, being scared or misunderstood, having a meltdown at school, not finding any friends, and the list could go on and on and on.
When we talked later in the day, my friend said to me, “I just didn’t see this coming. I have been needing the break so desperately that the worry and anxiety just took me totally by surprise.”
And that’s how it works, isn’t it? Us fringy parents experience these extreme contradictions in emotions and they can sneak up on us and hit us like a Mack truck when we least expect them.
One moment I can feel so empty and drained and ready for a break that I’m willing to sell my child to the first bidder, and the next, I feel an overwhelming love for her that wants to scoop her up and not let her out of my sight.
I can be quite on the edge of throttling my child and then suddenly feel fiercely protective.
My daughter can show a seeming regression in behavior so that I’m feeling hopeless, and then within an hour do something I never thought she’d be capable of and I’m filled with pride.
I can be feeling an intense pride in my parenting and put-togetherness, and then within minutes it all can change and I get pushed beyond my limit, and feel the sinking feeling in my stomach as I face my latest parenting mistake.
Of course, every parent has conflicting feelings. Every parent who sends their child to a brick and mortar school is simultaneously excited and nervous for them, and feels both eager to get them back to a routine and sad that they are a year older. But, there’s something more intense and more extreme about the conflicting feelings us fringy parents feel. I have never before loved someone so intensely and felt like I can’t survive another moment being around them. This fringy lifestyle just brings everything to a whole new level.
So, know that your drastic emotion changes are very common for other parents like you. Know that you are not alone.
Rest assured that when those deeply painful emotions are there, they are temporary and in a matter of minutes a newer, more pleasant feeling may spring up.
And be prepared for anything. Any emotion is possible as we parent these kiddos of ours. Know that you will probably feel conflicting things, and that’s ok. It’s all part of this magically conflicting world of raising a meltdown kid.
Spiritual anxiety is not, in and of itself, bad. It is essential. For those of us thoughtful, reflective, questioning, sensitive souls, we often find it at one or more times in our lives. And when we’re in it, it is difficult. It is hard. Our whole world is flipped upside down, spinning, and standing still all at the same time. It is a time of insecurity and uncertainty. And it is good.
My dad was an intense man. That’s not exactly the word I would have used when I was a kid as his intensity set the tone of our home, but it is the word that best fits him. As I learned about traits of giftedness in the last few years of his life, I felt like I was finally getting to understand him. I don’t know that he ever had the opportunity to really understand himself.
My dad died 5 years ago at way too young of an age. I wish I could say he enjoyed his early retirement in the years leading up to his death. But he, like many gifted older adults I know, didn’t necessarily choose retirement. I think he would have been much like my mom is today, still working through the indefinite future. His body had other ideas and there came a time when he simply was forced to retire.
My dad threw everything he had and all his intensity into his work. He often didn’t last long in jobs because he tired of them once the challenge was over, and very early in life he discovered he needed to be an entrepreneur. I don’t even want to think about what it would have been like to be his boss! When retirement dropped in his lap, he lost his outlet for his intensity.
At first he redirected it toward home projects. Mom and I had no idea there were so many projects needing to be completed! When he couldn’t create any more projects to complete (or grew tired of them, in all honesty), he turned his intensity toward cooking. Every family meal brought a new creation. Hours and hours were spent planning and preparing for each meal. Then came intense bargain hunting. So intense that I have flashbacks of sitting in my office, watching the minutes click by and typing up work notes while my dad chatted away and informed me of the various prices and qualities of blueberries and pork chops for 45 minutes. And then he created his rebate game. There was a particular store that frequently offered rebates on products. Spreadsheets were created, multiple po boxes were opened as my dad computed how to obtain the most amount of free or extremely low cost goods by playing his rebate and couponing game.
Eventually, though, he grew weary of these new projects and I could see the depression graying out his eyes as he searched for meaning and purpose. I can’t help but think that had he been given tools and knowledge about his life as a gifted person that his last years might have looked different. As a geriatric therapist in my former work, I’ve seen many, many older and retiring gifted adults who really struggle with this transition. It’s often a hard transition for everyone, but for those of us who are wired differently from the start, the relaxation and supposed ease of retirement feels as comfortable as trying to sit still in the kindergarten classroom while the teacher is droning on about letters that you’ve been reading for several years.
While my life is abundantly full and my own intense multipotentiality frequently finds me living a frantic pace of life, the idea of retirement sounds lovely. In reality, though, I know my own wiring well enough to know that I’ll never be content without something going on, and realistically, without several somethings going on. I have the luxury of learning about the intensities of giftedness, and understanding myself better than the generations before could have. We need to support those who go before us, who have been paving the way, to help them understand how they are wired, that it is typical to be intense and that purpose and meaning making is vital for everyone, but can be especially depressing when it’s absent for gifted people. We need to support our gifted elders to know themselves, know what makes them tick, and help them continue with their intense lifestyles as best as their bodies will allow.
Before we retire - find projects, volunteer opportunities, plan for a part time job in a field we’ve always thought would be fun, plan to go to school, join clubs and groups, build up our tribes, gather our stacks of always-wanted-to-read books, start writing that book we’ve always talked about, learn a new instrument, join a community theater, take art classes, start a non-profit, get some pets, create our own research project, subscribe to Great Courses, listen to podcasts (I’ve heard the Fringy Bit one is great! <shameless plug>), learn about giftedness, attend gifted conferences, create our lists of things we’ve always been curious about, etc, etc, etc
Our intensities stick with us. They were there the day we were born and they’ll be there til the day we die. I’ve seen what happens when we don’t feed them. I’ve seen what happens when we pretend we don’t have them. It isn’t pretty. We need to help the generations ahead of us embrace their intensities and we need to intentionally embrace our own. Planful, mindful, purposefully intense retirement activities for all of us gifted elders and gifted elders-to-be!
I am honored to call myself a colleague of the other fine writers who contribute to Hoagies' Gifted Education BlogHops each month. Soak up their wisdom in this month's bloghop: Gifted Elder Issues.
Seeing typical daughters interacting with their mothers, evoked pangs of grief that I just wasn’t prepared for. I had anticipated taking extra breaks. I had anticipated needing extra mom-patience. I had anticipated mini meltdowns as we walked from one location to the next. I had not anticipated a simultaneous swelling of pride and sorrow.