One of my children really liked to make messes when she was small. You take a kid who is curious, who is sensory seeking and who is creative and you get a lot of messes. (Many of you are nodding and sighing and wringing out a sponge ready to clean up your own child’s brand new mess.) This child of mine used to find new and unusual ways to make already messy things even messier. She used to find a particularly sticky or wet or ooky thing and she had to take it to the next level, wondering how it felt or how it smelled or how it might look over here instead of over there or what might happen if she dipped a stuffed animal into it.
Now I have to give her some credit because even when she was small she would clean up her messes with the caveat that first she had to realize that they were messes. If she didn’t realize it then I would find it eventually and she was generally amenable to being handed a sponge and being told to go to work. Most of the time I could be pretty calm about it. I understood how it was for her — she often didn’t realize that the mess has begun until it was already pretty crazy. At the first part she would be in the moment. She would be humming and swishing her hands through the soapsuds for quite some time before she realized that the soapsuds have spilled out of the sink onto the book she brought into the bathroom with her or that the water was running out of the sink onto her shoes. She was very in that moment, focused, experiencing the mess. And when she did realize it, she was often dismayed. She did not want to be that messy girl all the time. She didn’t like having to come tell me what happened so I could help her figure out how to clean it up.
My way of dealing with it was to emphasize how responsible she was even before she knew what responsible was. So when I came into her bedroom and saw that she’d found a stray bottle of black tempera paint and that her resulting art projects had gotten out of control I would say, in a calm (but certainly sometimes simmering) voice, “I know you are a responsible person so I expect you to take responsibility for this.”
And she would as much as she could and I would help her the rest of the way.
Eventually when she spilled her soup after deciding to fix herself a little snack she would say, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’m responsible. I’ll take care of it.”
I was thinking about this because we sometimes have to fight not to give a messy child a negative self concept because she happens to be a messy person. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there.
When things were NOT messy, I would sometimes talk about what a creative, curious person my messy child was (and remains) and how sometimes this makes for messes and then I would add, “But you are so responsible, you always clean them up. Even if you whine a little first, you take responsibility for it and you take care of it.”
Jean Luc Picard has faith that the messes will lessen. Trust him.
I said this before it was true. I said this when the only reason she took responsibility was because I stood over her and coached her through it. I said this even when her efforts made things worse as she toddled behind me imitating me cleaning it up. I said it to make it true. My husband and I gave her that self concept, “You are responsible” and we are still giving it to her because we are like Picard, we are saying, “Make it so.”
The other thing I would do is tell her that it’s OK to be a little kid and to be messy. I would say, “Yes, you are having trouble with X but that’s because you are X age and kids who are X age are learning about that.” So when my child was lamenting her propensity for messes, I would say, “You make messes because you are learning. You will get bigger and you will make fewer messes. Besides it doesn’t matter as long as you take responsibility for your messes, which you do.”
I’m not trying to pretend that I didn’t tear out my hair or stomp around or holler because I did those things, too; after all I’m human. When I saw yet another roll of toilet paper ruined or another bar of soap squished into wet oblivion I sometimes did not behave with an iota of grace or patience. But we worked on it together and I trusted that if I said it often enough and gave her the tools, she would get better. And happily she has. She’s still creative and she’s still messy but she’s also independently responsible about cleaning things up 99% (ok, maybe 96%) of the time.
So these are my parenting tips for loving our messy kids: Act like Picard (“Make it so”) and give them a little perspective (“It’s normal to do XYZ but my job is to help you grow out of it”). Not necessarily in that order.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnosis in kids; ten to twenty percent of all children will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder before the age of 18. But it’s hard for parents to figure out when worry is part of typical child development and when it’s a concern.
Some anxiety in kids is normal. Anxiety can inspire children to do stuff like wash their hands and double-check their homework. Anxiety becomes an issue when kids get stuck in it to the point where its getting in the way of their lives. For example, it’s fine if a child double-checks his math sheet; it’s not fine if he can’t sleep because he’s obsessively going over and over the numbers, erasing the paper to the point that his pencil rips through and begging you to check it for him.
When worry becomes extreme and/or intrusive, that’s when it’s time to get help. If your child is missing out on her regular everyday life or missing out on events that you know she would otherwise enjoy then her anxiety has become a problem.
Anxiety is often co-diagnosed with depression (particularly in teens) and anxious kids may also be misdiagnosed as having attention problems. (Anxious kids often have a hard time focusing particularly in contexts that worry them — at school, for example.)
Which Kids Become Anxious
Some kids are born with a more anxious temperament than other kids and these children often have anxious parents (because temperament — innate personality traits — is generally believed to be nature although how we live out our temperament depends on nurture). If you have struggled with anxiety there’s a higher chance that your child will, too.
The kind of temperament that tends to anxiety is sensitive, cautious and negative. You might recognize yourself in some of these traits, too.
Sensitivity: These kids are aware of their surroundings and may pick up on details that other people miss. They may be the first ones to notice someone’s new haircut or when someone else replaces their contacts with glasses. They may overhear adult conversations even though they’re in a room four doors down. They may detect subtle changes in someone’s demeanor and ask you later why Aunt Cora was mad. These kids may also have sensory sensitivity; the world feels less comfortable for them whether they are sensory seeking (wanting more intense sensory input) or sensory avoidant. His anxiety may be heightened because he’s uncomfortable in his socks or because he doesn’t like the way this new school smells.
Cautious: I’ve met plenty of anxious kids who go hurtling into space on their bikes or rollerblades but lots of anxious kids will be the ones hanging back from the fray. They may be the ones observing the party before they join or the ones who read up on shark attacks in Florida before your summer vacation. They may be the ones who need a lot of cajoling, the one who makes the family late for the wedding because she wants you to tell her — again — exactly what’s going to happen there. They may be reluctant to try new foods or new things.
Negative Emotionality: This is another way to say pessimistic. These are the kids who are sure bad things will happen. They’re the ones who counter your encouragement with a lot of concerning “what ifs.” Says Dad, “Let’s head to the pool!” Says child, “But what if the lifeguard isn’t on duty? What if I get a cramp? What if you don’t notice I’m drowning?” This is a child whose theme song could be Mel Brooks’s “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.” And when you say, “You’re being ridiculous” they’ll counter with, “I’m being realistic.” This is a genuine worldview they have and logical arguments may not make a dent in it.
You can see that these can be great traits in small doses — and the anxious kid can be a pleasure much of the time — but when taken too far, these traits can be crippling.
Sometimes there’s a specific event that triggers a child into an anxiety disorder. For example, a child who gets lost at the mall or who witnesses someone get injured. Or a big life event like a move or a change in school may impact some kids differently than their siblings or peers. Lots of children will spend their early years worrying and then when they hit their tweens, that’s when the worry turns out to full blown anxiety.
Anxious parents can inadvertently make things worse for their anxious kids both because they share certain personality traits but also because anxiety is one of those super-catching emotions. Think about it — back when we were hunting and gathering, it made sense for one person’s anxiety to trigger another person’s anxiety. If a tornado is bearing down on your tribe it’s a help if everyone gets ready to run. We have mirror neurons — so called because we reflect our emotions back to each other — to keep us all in step. This is why when faced with a child wailing about the upcoming spelling test we get revved up, too, and pretty soon everyone is yelling.
If you have questions, hit me up.
Second in the series: Child Anxiety Symptoms
Last in the series: Helping Kids with Anxiety
We used to have two gorgeous handmade wooden sand trays at our agency but when our boss left she naturally took her toys with her and that included the sand trays. I knew they were leaving but didn’t think much of it because I figured we’d get out the old Rubbermaid boxes we used to use and I thought, well, they aren’t as lovely but what the heck, they’ll work just fine.
Funny thing, though — they don’t work nearly as well.
An official sand tray is wooden and is painted blue inside (to symbolize water). They come in different sizes (and some of them are round) but the standard size is around 24″ x 30″ and about 3″ to 4″ deep. The reason they’re so big is they’re meant to hold an entire world. The reason they’re not even bigger is that they’re meant to hold that world in a space small enough that the child can see all of it without turning her head.
The Rubbermaid containers are smaller and they’re not as pretty. The small size matters because the kids who are used to the bigger trays are annoyed to find the worlds they make are now all cramped up. And the prettiness matters because the toys we use are our means to communicate with our clients and the better our tools, the more we are conveying our respect for what they have to say. I believe that the respect that comes with working in a solid, lovely sand tray makes a difference in how welcomed the child feels in our sessions together and the Rubbermaid fix — while workable — doesn’t have that same gravity and consideration.
I didn’t have a sand tray for my private practice because I was holding out for a good one and they’re not cheap. I kept thinking about giving in and buying something makeshift but I didn’t want to compromise. Once I saw the difference our switch to the Rubbermaid containers made in my sessions at the agency, I became even more determined to wait until I could get a good, solid, wooden tray.
Then I found these instructions for making your own. Hurray!
Now I’m not handy so I knew that I wasn’t up for the task but when I was talking to my father-in-law about it he volunteered to make me one. And he did and it is beautiful and I am thrilled.I’m still working on building up my miniature collection and exploring ways to display it to make it accessible (right now it’s a jumble). I’m thinking about using molding to create shelves for the figures but want to make sure that they’re not prone to tumbling off before I start drilling holes in the wall.
I love using the sand tray with my clients. It’s such a great way for a less verbal child to communicate with me and it calms down the sensory seekers like nothing else (except maybe play dough). Children who are feeling shy about choosing toys in the playroom will generally dive into sand tray work much more quickly and then it seems once they’ve established their place in the sand then they are able to transfer that sense of ownership over to the rest of the toys.
It’s also a useful way to get a better understanding of relationships since families can create trays together. Watching two brothers negotiate a world together gives me a glimpse of how they work together (or don’t) at home.
A sand tray is an important investment for anyone doing play therapy and getting a good one is definitely worth the time or money. (I tried to talk my father-in-law into making himself available for building one for local friends but he said that while it was an easy project, it’s not something he’s rushing to do again. But he does encourage the handy among you not to be afraid of trying to build your own.)
Introverts, in my experience, are highly sensitive in other ways. We can be randomly fragile people (although many of us are, I have found, awfully strong in the long run and I think that comes from all that practice we get steeling ourselves). We are used to having our feelings dismissed. We are used to people telling us to get over it. We are used to hearing it from people who love us and who are otherwise kind to us (like our parents and friends and family).
Here’s an example. When I was a kid — like a little toddling kid still in diapers — I was afraid of carpet fuzzies. You know, those little fuzzies that get up between your toes when you are a sticky-footed toddler walking on acrylic carpet. I don’t quite remember being afraid of them but I do remember sitting, looking at my be-fuzzied toes and feeling despair. (Sensory issues — I’m telling you, introversion is a sensory issue and lots of us introverts have other sensory issues, too.) My big sister used to throw fuzzies at me and it would make me scream.
Of course it’s ridiculous to be afraid of carpet fuzz and it’s ridiculous to feel despair at the way they wind their way around your toes. But I was about two. And when you’re two you don’t have a scope of reference. You are still fresh and new and small things (especially if you are perhaps maybe a little sensory impaired) can feel overwhelming. You don’t know that the despair of unrelenting carpet fuzzies is part of being new to the world and will — for most of us — wear off.
It’s still a family joke about me once being afraid of carpet fuzz and it’s still something my sister teases me about. I am, of course, no longer scared of them. (I can walk barefoot across carpet with the best of ’em!) I’ve also long learned that there are much more frightening things than carpet fuzz and, too, I’ve learned that there is usually a light at the end of things and that I am unlikely to be permanently undone by temporary discomfort.
Of course I’m also over forty. You can see how that’s a lot for a little kid to know and why they need our help managing their sometimes incomprehensible sensitivities.
A version of this post originally appeared on my old personal blog, this woman’s work.
Last summer I decided to try to jump on our new trampoline. I went out there, stood tall, bounced several times to get the feel of it and then got ready to jump and lift my feet from the mat and … stalled. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make my feet come off of the mat anymore than I could jump off a building. Every time I tried to lift my feet my body knew with absolute certainty that I would die even though my logical mind knew that this was ridiculous.
It’s a sensory issue. My body knows what it knows even when my mind knows it’s not true.
I’m having a day when I’m feeling frustrated with my limits. I feel like I’m standing on that darn trampoline knowing every other person can jump (this is a lie — I know there are lots of people who can’t jump but when I’m wallowing in self-pity I feel like I’m the only person splashing around in all that melancholy) but unable to lift my feet even an inch. It’s so easy for some people and I wail (to myself, because I’m an introvert), “Why is it so hard for me???”
That day I tried to jump on the trampoline for true instead of only metaphorically I just laughed at myself (kindly) and got off the trampoline. I said to my own lopsided little sensory-challenged self, “So you can’t jump! Then go do what you can do!”
It’s what we need to say to ourselves when we’re facing down limits. Sometimes we need to take a breath and comfort ourselves so that we have the courage to push past them. Sometimes wallowing is the first step to getting out of that self-pity wallow.
Plus February in Ohio is a hard month. We should probably be extra nice to ourselves in February since the sun is so often hiding.
Yes indeed, this is another post that had an earlier version on my old persona blog, this woman’s work.