How do we help intense and sensitive children cope when a pet dies? If your family’s anything like mine, you threw out the rule book about what you ’should’ do in these situations long ago.
When we lost our cat this week, I just focused on being present to what my kids needed, moment by moment. Coaches refer to this as ‘holding space’.
Kids who have OEs often have vivid imaginations and an incredible sense of humour. Mine amazed and inspired me yesterday in the way they used those qualities to bring to bring light into a sad day.
We took our sweet cat for a check-up on Tuesday morning when she appeared, thin and weak, after several days’ absence. At lunchtime the vet phoned to say that Flissy – whose birth in our playroom six years ago Cordie and Jasper watched – had terminal cancer. By 5pm the three of us were at Flissy’s side while she was gently put to sleep.
Honouring complex individual reactions
My children reacted to the news quite differently from one another.
While my 11-year-old son burst into tears, his 12-year-old sister remained dry eyed. A stranger might say she almost smiled. I was reminded of how Cordie used to get into trouble at pre-school for ’smirking’ at inappropriate moments.
Thankfully I know my daughter. I know how deeply she feels things, and I know how hard she works to find strategies to process her intense emotions I honoured her reaction, (while part of me was thankful that my son, at least, wanted the hug I craved too).
The healing power of laughter
After gentle cuddles we left Fliss to enjoy her final afternoon in peace, and set off for the river with our dogs.
The jokes started in the car. I’ve shared some below. I warn you – the humour was dark. If you’re upset by conversations about dismembered feline corpses you should stop reading now.
The children talked about getting a new cat, giggling at the blatant tastelessness of having that conversation before Fliss was even gone. My daughter googled local pets for sale. We joked about arranging to pick up a new cat on the way back from the vets later.
An eavesdropper might have thought us heartless, but I knew that humour was helping my kids cope with something that might overwhelm their sensitive and intense souls if they focused on their grief for too long.
The intensity of our shared experience brought an extra loving dimension to our interactions that afternoon. Sibling bickering subsided as the children raced roly-poly style down hills and competed to invent the silliest cat names.
Dark humour on the way to the vet
We laughed through our tears as we drove Flissy to her final vet appointment. My son’s humour became darker.
“I hope they give her nice drugs before they get the chainsaw out.”
J: “You know, we needn’t have paid the vet to do this. I could’ve just swung her around in the carrier. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Me: “Maybe we could ask the vet if we could have a moment alone with Flissy afterwards. We’ll pop her in the carrier and you can have a little swing?”
“Do you think they’d let me keep a paw? Or maybe her head?”
In the vet’s surgery tears rolled down our cheeks as we stroked Flissy’s warm, velvety fur for the last time and felt her tiny body go limp beneath our hands.
Before settling up I asked the vet, “Do you still have that swing outside?”
The children ran out to play. (No cats were swung.)
As we drove home my son said sadly,
“I keep thinking of all those experiences she never got to have. Meet a panda … eat her first diamond.”
I suggested he might have a future as a grief counsellor. For the right sort of person.
“Yeah, they’d have to have a very black sense of humour,” he replied.
Back home, I quietly removed Fliss’s food bowl from the counter.
“How about we ditch dinner and order Dominoes pizza?” Jasper suggested. ” We could watch that episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon gets all the cats.”
I started this blog to connect with other parents raising quirky kids, so I’m always pleased to hear from you. A kindred spirit recently asked this great question:
‘How do I know if my child 1) is highly sensitive, or 2) has a sensory processing disorder, or 3) is gifted, or 4) has some of the OEs? How do we as parents determine when intervention is needed? I have had to work through a lot of issues with my child(ren). Sometimes want to completely throw in the towel because it’s exhausting and difficult even while we have some extra-special times too. The problem is I know public school would not do better for them than what I can currently provide. I am also a sensitive mama and get really overwhelmed or akin to triggered by some of the meltdowns that can happen. How do I determine which of these different ways of thinking applies to my child? I can glean ways of interacting with and support them, but I do know there is occupational therapy and other supports available for 2e kids or those with SPD. What would you recommend? Thank you so much. I appreciate your time and whatever advice you can give.’
Let me start out by saying I’m not a professional in child development, just a mum of two differently-wired children. I hope that by sharing my experience I can help you navigate the sometimes confusing abundance of information out there.
(1) Highly sensitive
I read Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons when my children were about 6 and 7. While much of it resonated, we had a lot going on that high sensitivity didn’t explain. HSP didn’t address the intense energy, incessant questions, intense drive and the (sometimes aggressive) competitiveness we were dealing with, for instance.
(2) Sensory processing disorder
When my son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder at age 8 I felt so relieved to finally have an explanation for what was going on. At last I had a way to explain his unusual behaviour to friends, family and teachers (or so I thought)!
However, after a year of occupational therapy there was no change in my son’s behaviour. During a football course run by the OTs I noticed how different Jasper was from all the other kids who had sensory issues. I realised that there must be something else going on besides SPD.
(3) Overexcitabilities (OEs)
A couple of years later the words, ‘Intense? Sensitive? Easily overwhelmed? Reacts out of proportion?’ jumped out at me from a flyer. They led me to a PowerWood workshop, where I learned about the innate personality traits known as overexcitabilities.
At the OEs workshop I discovered that there’s a lot of overlap between OEs and giftedness. Not everyone with OEs has a high IQ, and not everyone with a high IQ has OEs. But the high degree of co-morbidity means the gifted community provides invaluable resources to support families dealing with OEs.
‘How do we as parents determine when intervention is needed?’
I’m guessing from your question that you’ve read about high sensitivity and that it didn’t provide all the answers.
Take the OEs questionnaire
My next step would be to take the overexcitabilities questionnaire and read the excellent description of OEs in the PowerWood OEs flyer. If you discover that your child has OEs, remember they’re not a disorder. They’re personality traits that can bring many benefits as well as challenges. Individuals with OEs often experience above-average creativity, energy and enjoyment of life, for instance.
Consider having an introductory chat with a parenting coach who specialises in OEs to find out more about how they apply to your family. Skype coaching with OEs expert Simone de Hoogh helped us enormously.
Identify your specific concerns
Shift your focus away from puzzling over what theory applies and ask yourself, ‘What challenges does my child needs help with?’ Are you worried about her inability to focus on learning? Her social behaviour? Anxiety? Identifying your specific concerns will help guide you towards solutions and the people who can provide them.
Occupational therapy can be a great support to some families. Read about sensory processing issues. If you think OT might help, consider consulting a therapist. My son enjoyed his OT sessions but they were expensive and when we’d seen no behavioural changes after a year we stopped them (by which time Jasper was getting bored anyway).
We homeschool in the UK, and an assessment with an ed psych helped us identify asynchronies and twice-exceptionality.
The psychologist identified issues like (relatively) slow processing speed and working memory, mild dyslexia, and dysgraphia.
The information and resources the psychologist recommended has helped me meet my children’s needs better. It also got us into the system for accommodations (such as the ability to use a keyboard in exams) later down the line.
‘Sometimes I want to throw in the towel because it’s exhausting and difficult. I am also a sensitive mama and get triggered by some of the meltdowns’
I hear you! Raising these amazing kids can be super-tiring. Intensity and sensitivity are hereditary traits, so it’s not surprising we get triggered by our children. Let me give you a virtual hug and reassure you that you’re probably doing much better than you’re giving yourself credit for.
I’m glad you recognise that, ‘public school would not do better for them than what I can currently provide.’ You’re an intelligent, loving mum who understands her children better than anyone else does. Appreciate yourself for the great job you’re doing. Forgive yourself when you don’t always live up to your high standards. Prioritise meeting your own needs. When you do, you’ll have more energy to be the kind of parent you want to be. Have realistic expectations of everyone (including yourself). Appreciate small victories, and take one day at a time.
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What are your favourite resources for raising differently wired kids?
What professional support has been most helpful to you?
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This photo appeared on my Instagram feed last week, captioned it “Back to school hell.” I imagined the noise, the jostling and the hot, stuffy atmosphere as frazzled parents waited to have their kids’ feet measured.
When your child has overexcitabilities (OEs) a simple shopping trip can be a full-on sensory assault, even without the crowds. Life is a lot easier if you can visit stores when everyone else is in school.
Of course, avoiding busy shops isn’t the only reason I home-educate my intense and sensitive children. Here are a few other reasons I’m glad my kids won’t be going back to school next week:
1. I don’t have to explain my children’s complex needs to new teachers
Overexcitabilities are unheard of in most schools. I’d never heard of them either when my kids were at school, but I knew that each time my son and daughter changed classes we were in for a bumpy ride as we waited for new teachers to get them.
It started on my 4-year-old’s first day in reception. Cordie came home distraught, which surprised me as she’d always enjoyed nursery.
“Miss Bellamy made me stand in the corner because I wouldn’t put away the Barbies at tidy-up time. But I didn’t play with the Barbies. I hate Barbies! She should’ve let me tidy the dressing-up clothes.”
That night my little girl had a nightmare.
“I dreamed the Wicked Witch of the West cut off my legs and made me stand in the corner,” she sobbed.
Off I went to the school to try to explain my daughter’s profound sense of justice to a well-meaning but skeptical teacher.
My twice-exceptional son had an even bumpier ride.
After a relatively smooth start, his teacher went on maternity leave. She was replaced by substitute teachers whose job-sharing arrangement prevented either of them from getting to know my son as anything other than a nuisance.
My kids have been homeschooled for six years now. While I still have to advocate for them, I’m deeply grateful for the freedom we have to choose coaches and tutors who understand and appreciate their intensity, and to walk away from those who don’t.
2. My kids are free to learn what, how and when they want
One of the biggest advantages of homeschooling is that non-average children don’t have to work at grade level for all their subjects.
Once they’ve mastered material, they needn’t waste time going over it until their classmates catch up. Equally, there’s no shame working on a skill they’re struggling with even if other kids their age have already mastered it. And delays in one area don’t have to impact learning elsewhere.
So instead of being held back by his difficulties with the mechanics of handwriting, my dysgraphic son can record his thoughts quickly by typing or dictating to me.
And his mild dyslexia is an opportunity for me to read aloud while my kids engage their psychomotor energies crafting, drawing or playing with magnetix. Yes, there are interruptions, usually in the form of spirited discussions about what we’re reading – or something utterly tangential – and that’s a good thing.
3. They can play outdoors whenever they want
Everyone knows that exercise and fresh air are good for us, so I was stunned when my son was punished at school by being made to stand by the fence during playtimes. Did his teachers really think that was going to make him behave better?
Another afternoon he was told he wasn’t allowed to play in the class garden for the following three days because he refused to come inside the moment the teachers told him to.
At home my kids benefit from being able to play outside whenever they like. I admit I’ve been known to feel irritated when my son runs off to the trampoline in the middle of a maths problem. But when I look back I usually realise he’s done us both a favour.
Time out gives everyone a chance to clear their heads and return better able to focus on their learning goals.
5. We can accommodate and engage overexcitabilities
It’s difficult to learn when you’re constantly being triggered by uncomfortable sensations.
Little things like hunger, thirst or needing to use the bathroom all deplete the willpower kids need to manage their OEs. Scratchy school clothes, the chatter of other students and the flickering of lights can all contribute to a state of overwhelm and hyper-reactivity that’s unconducive to learning.
At home, kids can wear comfy clothes and go barefoot. They can work in silence, or with the dog in their lap, or while listening to relaxing music. In this calming environment my children can channel all the good things OEs bring – intense curiosity, energy and imagination, for instance – towards their learning goals.
My friend’s photo reminded me of this picture I took shoe shopping with my kids three years ago, just after the school term started. Back then I knew nothing about OEs or why my kids were so sensitive and intense.
What I did know was that homeschooling was the right choice for us.
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Do you homeschool your children?
What are the biggest advantages for your family?
I recognise that homeschooling isn’t an option for every family. If your kids do go to school, do you have any tips about how to support them?
I’d love to hear from you. 🙂
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“Why do you make your daughter do so many extracurricular activities?”
I nearly choked on my tea. “Is it because you feel guilty for taking her out of school?” A woman asked me this at a kids’ birthday party when my daughter was 6.
Make my daughter do extra-curricular activities? She couldn’t have got it more wrong.
My daughter had gone to a school that ran dozens of extracurricular clubs. She signed up for as many as 5-year-olds were allowed. Out of school, she wanted to do rugby, football, judo, singing, dance and drama.
If I dragged my heels finding an activity she wanted to do, my daughter would google local classes and hand me the phone. “I really want to try it, Mummy. Pleeease?”
She loved every one of her activities. But she was becoming exhausted.
It’s not that our schedule was abnormal. Several of her friends had the same busy lives. The difference was that those kids didn’t throw themselves into everything with the same intensity as my daughter.
The result? I never got to see my sweet, fun-loving girl. All her family got was the grumpy, worn out child that was left at the end of each day.
“We can’t go on like this, sweetie.” I said. “What would you like to give up?”
Cordie looked at her brother, who’d been homeschooled for a term. “Maybe I could give up school?”
Passionate about everything
From martial arts to gymnastics, through art classes, scouts, climbing, wake-boarding and ice skating, my daughter’s problem has always been fitting in everything she wants to do.
Having an introverted brother with OEs has brought even more activities along the way: my daughter goes along to keep her brother company. Then a few weeks later he drops out (or is dropped), by which time Cordie’s an enthusiastic participant in her own right!
Multi-potential and extroverted, at 12 my daughter’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Do you have a child who wants to do everything, too?
If you do, you’ll know it brings many benefits – and a few challenges, too.
The benefits of being into everything
I adore my daughter’s zest for life.
I love how her life is enriched by the enormous range of people she mixes with.
I’m in awe of her extraordinary physical fitness.
I love that she’s learningleadership and team skills.
And I adore that she’s spending her childhood discovering what she loves to do.
I guess I just never anticipated there’d be quite so many things she’d love to do!
The challenges of being into everything
When you have a child who wants to try – and excel at – everything, you have to:
Help her manage her energy.
Remind her she needs downtime: to cuddle pets, to read, to doodle.
Encourage her to leave space for spontaneous pleasures.
Be the (sometimes unwelcome) voice of reason, suggesting now and again that something has to give.
Appreciate her drive for excellence, while letting her know that it’s okay to do some things just for fun.
Remind her to make time to work towards her academic goals.
Support her as she manages her relationships. Children with emotional OE crave depth in friendships, which may be difficult to satisfy when you only see friends and acquaintances once or twice a week.
Balance siblings’ needs. Keep them happy if they have to go everywhere with you. Even when they’re old enough to stay home alone, you need enough time and energy to meet their needs.
Manage your own energy. All that chauffering can be exhausting! If you’re an introvert, try listening to audiobooks in the car together. Maintaining your personal baseline is vital when you’re parenting kids with OEs.
Supporting our children’s unique needs
If my kids weren’t so very different from one another, I might worry that I’d done something wrong to create such extreme characters.
I might have wondered if I really was ‘forcing’ my daughter to do extracurricular activities. Or I might have worried that I wasn’t exposing my son to enough opportunities.
But with just 16 months between them and an identical upbringing, my kids’ choices are plainly their own.
So wherever your kids are on the extracurricular spectrum – trust that you’re not getting it wrong.
Our children each have their own paths to forge in this world. Our job is to love unconditionally, to support when needed, and to help each child flourish as the unique individual he or she was born to be.
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Finding outlets for his asynchronous physical, social and creative energies has always been a challenge.
Challenge #1: Other kids
Most group activities involve waiting for your turn. And when kids are bored, winding up the ‘weird’ kid provides a welcome distraction.
Their behaviour isn’t malicious. Boys fidget as they wait in line. They bump into each other. And when the sensitive child gets jostled, he reacts. He’s already starting to feel overwhelmed by the noise, bright light and waiting, so it doesn’t take much.
‘What will happen if I ‘accidentally’ touch him with my foot again?’ wonders the bored kid.
So begins a cycle which ends in the sensitive child getting thrown out of the class. He is the one who has ‘over’-reacted – the others were just being ‘normal little boys’.
Parenting coaching helped me see the positive intention in my son’s behaviour in situations like this.
The ‘death-stare’ he gives other kids when he’s feeling overwhelmed is an adaptive (constructive) behaviour, designed to get the other kids to back away.
Walking out of an ice-skating class after 5 minutes and shutting himself in the toilets is better than kicking off at the girl who accidentally skated into him.
When we understand what’s going on, we’re much better equipped to support and advocate for our children.
Challenge #2: Other adults
Dealing with others’ judgments is one of the toughest challenges when you’re raising children with OEs.
As a child I was mortified if I ever got in trouble, so I learned to be a good girl. Then – because the Universe likes us to grow – I was blessed with a son who, through no fault of his own, regularly behaved ‘inappropriately’ according to societal norms.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve found tears stinging my eyes as someone’s berated me about my son’s behaviour.
Parenting coaching with someone who understands OEs has also helped me deal with other adults. (See When extracurricular activities don’t go as planned, below, for more about this.)
Challenge #3: Coaches and teachers: To mention your child’s OEs or not?
What do teachers do when a child ‘misbehaves’ in class? They pull him aside, stand up close and demand an immediate apology. All of which is guaranteed to send an already-triggered child completely off at the deep end!
Should you try to avoid that scenario by telling the teacher about your child’s OEs? Or is it best not to anticipate trouble and hope for the best?
I once naively assumed that the teacher of a Lego robotics class for gifted kids would know about OEs. I privately told him of my son’s sensitivities and asked the teacher to give him time and space if he became overwhelmed.
My son later complained that the teacher loudly told him to, “Stop getting so overexcited!” whenever he was waiting for the other kids to catch up, which embarrassed and upset him.
Other extracurricular teachers, however, have been very supportive. My son’s karate teacher gave him time and space to calm down, helped him avoid over-stimulation, and – most importantly – didn’t make a big deal out of incidents.
Karate didn’t last because my son couldn’t keep still long enough to watch the higher grades (an important part of learning martial arts). But leaving on his terms after a period of self-reflection was much better than being thrown out.
Challenge #4: Competitiveness
Lots of children dislike losing at games and sports, but kids with OEs can be intensely competitive. If they also get overwhelmed in noisy groups, losing can trigger epic meltdowns.
What I’ve learned here is to have realistic expectations.
Although my son is naturally athletic, team sports don’t work for him. We stick to non-competitive sports and give him plenty of practice losing at games at home, where intense reactions can be safely supported.
When extracurricular activities don’t go as planned
Here are a few things I’ve learned, through experience and coaching:
1. Keep your baseline high
Try to schedule difficult conversations – whether with a teacher, another parent, your child or your partner – for a time when you’re calm and well rested. Build up emotional credit with your child before discussing any issue likely to trigger him.
2. Look for the positive intention in your child’s behaviour
Remember – he doesn’t want to behave this way. Let him know you understand his difficulties and acknowledge him for adaptive behaviours, however small.
Create a foundation on which he can learn strategies for handling situations better in future.
3. Don’t worry about what others are thinking
In conversations with teachers and other parents, remind yourself that they probably aren’t as triggered by what’s happened as you (especially if you have OEs of your own). Chances are, they’ll soon forget all about the incident, so try to distract yourself from ruminating about their reaction.
4. Prioritise your relationship with your child
Don’t pressure your child to continue an activity that isn’t working for him. Encourage him to get past his initial reaction and give it a chance but if he still hates it, let him quit. He might choose to come back when he’s better able to cope.
More than once I’ve been guilty of making both my son and I miserable trying to force an activity to work. The relief we feel when I finally let go is enormous. I’m rewarded with a happier child and a better relationship with him.
Meeting your child’s extracurricular needs in other ways
Kids with OEs are bright, creative, and here to forge their own paths in the world. They won’t be scarred for life just because they can’t join Cub Scouts or a soccer team.
Whenever I’ve had a panicky moment about extracurricular activities, I ask myself, ‘What am I worried about my son missing out on?‘ Then I think about other ways we can meet those needs.
My son has strong psychomotor OE so this has always been a big challenge for us. Here are a few of the outlets we’ve found for his abundant energy:
trampolining in the garden
jumping on oversized beanbags and cushions
skipping (jumping rope)
swimming (we found a special needs swimming class at our local leisure centre so I could exercise while my son swam)
scooting / biking / hiking as a family. Walks in the woods also offer tree-climbing
ice-skating – Many UK ice rinks offer concessionary entry for homeschoolers on Friday afternoons, so your child can skate alongside other kids without having to interact with them (unless he chooses to)
play equipment outside at home. Monkey-bars are a favourite in our family
soft-play centres – we spent many rainy afternoons in our local soft play centre when my kids were younger
gym – our local gym allows kids of 11 and older to work out at dedicated times. My son loves being able to watch videos on his iPad while he works up a sweat on the elliptical-trainer. (I work out on a nearby machine. It’s mind-boggling what an 11-year-old with psychomotor OE can get up to on a cross-trainer.)
climbing – at the local climbing wall. Great for using up energy and increasing emotional and physical stamina
Skills and hobbies
In today’s climate of abundant online courses this is perhaps the easiest of the extra-curricular needs to meet. Websites like DIY.org are full of ideas and resources.
If you opt for private tuition (for music, for instance) remember you may need to try out several teachers before you find the right match for your child.
The advantages of group activities are well-documented, so how do you help your child make friends and become a team player if he can’t join in?
The most encouraging research I’ve heard of on this subject was an American study which showed that the students who were socially best-adjusted at university were homeschooled children who had only socialised within their immediate families. (I’ll edit when I find the reference.)
My son’s never lasted long in any organised group, but somehow along the way he’s met a few good friends he regularly chats with online and occasionally meets up with. He gets on well with his four cousins, regular experiences losing games within the family, and has plenty of negotiating and diplomacy practice with his sister!
Another option is to find a mentor for your child (an understanding older teen or young adult, maybe). We have a friend in his 20s who’s harnessed his own OEs with great success. My son loves hanging out with him, on the trampoline or playing his favourite role-playing card game.
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What about multi-potentialite extroverts?
I’ve focused here on the challenges of finding extracurricular activities for my introverted son.
The air rushed past my face as I sat in the open doorway of the plane, 15,000 feet above the English countryside. A moment later I’d be freefalling towards the ground at 125 mph. Surely I should be feeling at least a bit anxious?
Here are a few of the anxiety-reducing techniques I’d been doing beforehand…
How not to feel anxious
1. Reframing physical sensations
You know that ‘butterflies in the tummy’ sensation you get when you think about something that makes you feel anxious? Physiologically, it’s the same as the feeling we get when we’re excited.
But, unlike William Shakespeare’s rose, the name we give to that feeling can make all the difference.
If we label the butterflies sensation nerves or anxiety, the feeling will probably grow stronger and more negative. But if we call the feeling excitement, we’re likely to feel a final fleeting frisson as we acknowledge the trigger, before our nervous system returns to normal.
In the week before my skydive I got butterflies every time someone mentioned my jump. But whenever anyone asked if I was nervous I didn’t answer ‘Absolutely terrified!’ Instead I truthfully replied, ‘A bit. But mainly I’m really excited!’
Reframing is one of the simplest yet most powerful techniques I learned when I trained to be a cognitive hypnotherapist.
I encourage my kids to reframe, but I’m also careful to acknowledge authentic emotions. None of these techniques is about slapping a happy face sticker over an empty fuel gauge, but rather transforming negative emotions into more positive ones.
In the case of my skydive, joyfully living life to the full is one of my core values. So transforming my nervousness into excitement was congruent with my authentic self.
2. Power Posing
If I told you that standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes would make you feel more confident and decrease stress, you might be sceptical. But if you’d heard of Amy Cuddy’s research into how our physiology affects our mental state you’d probably give it a try, and you might be surprised at the results.
I tried out power posing last week after listening to Cuddy’s audiobook, Presence. I was amazed how a few minor adjustments in the way I hold my body had such an uplifting effect.
One afternoon Cordie was feeling a bit out of sorts so I invited her to power pose with me. “Two whole minutes?!” she grumbled. I suggested we time ourselves by playing a song on her phone. So there we stood, two wonder women in front of the mirror, jiggling our hips to Enrique Iglesias and giggling our heads off.
Once upon a time, in another life, I used to attend board meetings with the heads of UK music companies. I noticed in those meetings that whenever a junior employee spoke, they always took a sip of water straight afterwards.
When I later trained as a cognitive hypnotherapist, I discovered why: anxiety gives us a dry mouth.
During my training I also learned a weird hack which, like power-posing, works because of the way the body affects the mind.
The Escudero method was originally developed as a pain control technique by a surgeon who successfully performed dozens of operations without any anaesthesia. It also works wonders when you need a confidence boost.
Luckily I was skydiving with my lovely hypnotherapy tutor, who reminded me of the Escudero method when he noticed me sipping from my water bottle as we waited to be called to our plane. To feel more confident, all you need to do is gather saliva in your mouth. Just as smiling’s been proven to make us feel happier, it’s hard to feel anxious with a well-moistened mouth. Slightly gross, I know, but – hey – if it works…
4. 4-7-8 Breathing
I became a believer in the power of breathing techniques when I (a self-confessed wuss who used to pop a paracetamol at the first hint of a headache) comfortably gave birth to my son at home, without even so much as a whiff of gas and air.
4-7-8 breathing generates a ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen that relaxes our parasympathetic nervous system and promotes a state of calm. All you do is inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale through your mouth for 8. Rest the tip of your tongue between your palate and your top front teeth as you breathe.
I’ve been using 4-7-8 breathing a lot since I learned it from Simone de Hoogh. It came in very handy as our plane slowly climbed to the 15,000 feet from which I was to freefall.
Do these techniques really stop you feeling anxious?
So did I feel nervous in the moments before I jumped out of a plane and hurtled toward the ground at 125mph for 60 seconds before parachuting down to earth?
Amazingly – I didn’t!
Thanks to these techniques I felt incredibly calm from the second I boarded our plane until the moment I parachuted gently down to earth. See for yourself in this (1 min 25 sec) video. I knew you wouldn’t be able to hear me shout, ‘I love this!’ during freefall, so as you can see from the thumbnail, I used sign language.💜
(You can see the full video (5 mins 53 secs) here.)
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever gone out of your way to do?
How do you deal with anxiety?
Have you ever tried any of these techniques?
I’d love to hear from you!
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I loved Your Rainforest Mind so much I read it twice in a row. This post has ended up far longer than I intended because it inspired so many thoughts I wanted to share. I trust that you, my fellow RFMs, will understand that!
Why should you read Your Rainforest Mind?
Because the countless examples of what it’s like to be an RFM will make you laugh and cry and feel validated for the amazing being that you are
Because the book is filled with practical strategies to help with the everyday challenges RFMs face
Because of the dozens of links to books, articles and websites for further research
Because after reading it you’ll be a hundred steps closer to knowing your place in this world
Because if you’re bringing up a young RFM, you’ll worry less and enjoy your child more
What is a rainforest mind?
I love the rainforest analogy. Not only does it neatly sidestep the controversial G word, but it captures the complexity of what’s going on inside an RFM so much better than the word ‘gifted’. Likening people to ecosystems, the author explains,
“While all ecosystems are beautiful and make valuable contributions to the whole, rain forests are particularly complex: multi-layered, highly sensitive, colorful, intense, creative, fragile, overwhelming, and misunderstood … The rain forest is not a better ecosystem, just more complicated. It also makes an essential contribution to the planet when allowed to be itself, rather than when cut down and turned into something that it is not.”
Here are some of my favourite things about Your Rainforest Mind:
1. The abundant examples of what it means to have a rainforest mind
When you grow up believing there’s something wrong with you because you’re so different from other people, you get used to camouflaging yourself to be accepted. Buried deep within, your authentic self yearns to be heard – and yet you don’t even realise the extent to which you’re denying it.
And then you read stories like the ones that fill this book, and you nod and you cry as you realise you’re not the only one who feels this way. And that beautiful, frightened child who survived by hiding her true nature all this time gradually begins to feel safe to come out and be seen.
A highly unscientific quiz
The book begins with a “highly unscientific” 23-question quiz to discover if you have a rainforest mind. One of my favourite questions is: “Have you ever called yourself ADHD because you are easily distracted by new ideas or intricate cobwebs, or OCD because you alphabetize your home library or color-code your sweaters, or bipolar because you go from ecstacy to despair in 10 minutes?” (Oh, yes!)
Your Rainforest Mind then continues to explore what having a rainforest mind means and the challenges it brings, illustrated with case studies from the author’s 25 years’ experience counselling RFMs. With every insightful example, my authentic self felt slightly more validated and the voice saying “there’s something wrong with you” became a little quieter.
2. Perfectionism explained
A few years ago I noticed how my kids both hate making mistakes, so I bought a book about perfectionism in children. That book put the blame squarely on parents’ shoulders. Perfectionistic kids, according to that author, are created by pushy, competitive parents.
Now, I admit I’m not the perfect parent (ha), but I’ve raised my kids with a keen awareness of the value of a growth mindset and intrinsic motivation. We unschool, and if anything I err on the side of not pushing them to achieve. So that book just didn’t resonate.
I now realise that that other author dealt only with extrinsic perfectionism and had no understanding of an RFM’s intrinsic drive for perfection – “That deep soulful desire for beauty, balance, harmony, and precision,” as Your Rainforest Mind author Paula Prober describes it.
While reading this chapter we heard from my daughter’s French teacher that she’d got 87% in her exam. Cordie was crestfallen. “I was hoping for more than that. I wonder what I missed?” As Paula says, “you may never feel satisfied because you strive for perfection. You keep raising the bar.”
3. Possibilities and choices
Sadness over the road not taken
Chapter four, Too many possibilities, Too many choices, deals with “the depth of [an RFM’s] sadness over the road not taken”. I was reminded strongly here of my daughter, who has experienced “the existential dilemma … in making choices” since she was a toddler.
I can remember three-year-old Cordie coming in after half an hour joyfully playing in the garden, then bursting into tears because, “I wanted to colour my picture!” I was genuinely bewildered. No one had forced her to play outside instead of colouring. It took me a while to figure out that she was sad simply because she hadn’t been able to do two things she loved at the same time.
Freedom to be multipotential
This chapter also discusses the challenge RFMs face in choosing a career path, bearing in mind their many and varied strengths, interests and passions. I found myself shouting ‘yes!’ when the author acknowledges that RFMs can be both scanners, who love variety and novelty, and divers, who choose one thing to examine thoroughly.
“Understanding your multipotentiality … can free you up to pursue many of your interests without guilt or shame.”
As a homeschooling mum who sometimes feels frivolous and guilty about the time I spend on my own hobbies and dreams, I resonated with the author’s client who said, “I’ve gotten so overwhelmed by the ideas and projects coming into my head that I’ve tried to convince myself that I could just turn them off and just be happy being a mom.”
This chapter also contains some great strategies for embracing our multipotentiality, which I’ll talk about in the next section.
4. Practical strategies
I’d have loved Your Rainforest Mind simply for the warm, validating way it describes RFMs. But, even better, at the end of each chapter are pages of practical strategies to help with the issues RFMs face.
One strategy I took on immediately was to make a journal filled with ideas for projects and career possibilities. “Use it to write, draw, mind-map, list or plan without any attention to practicality or reality. These may never be developed, which is fine.”
I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been to write down all the instruments and languages I’d love to learn alongside my dreams of studying astrophysics, photography, horticulture, hair science and economics while being an expert gymnast [crying with laughter emoticon] … and that’s just a small sample from a long, long list!
One of the things I liked best about this exercise was being given permission to dream, plan and research just because I enjoy it. Yes, endless research can get in the way of producing results, but that doesn’t mean that from time to time we can’t do it just for fun.
5. Authenticity, creativity and spirituality
I’ve spent most of my life feeling embarrassed about my lifelong search for spiritual meaning and connection with something greater than myself.
Brought up in an atheist family, at 12 I wrote long letters to God, at 14 I practised Buddhist chanting after reading about it in a teen magazine, and in my 20’s I sought secret respite from an unfulfilling legal career in the self-help shelves of my local bookshop. In my 30’s I attended regular personal development workshops and approaching 40 I discovered a life philosophy that has resonated with me to this day.
As I’ve grown older I’ve become more comfortable with the spiritually-seeking part of myself, yet I’ve always seen it as an aberration, somehow incongruent with my intelligence. So the relief I felt was visceral when I read Paula Prober’s sensitive discussion of authenticity, creativity and spirituality.
I resonated with Paula’s comment that from an early age most RFMs have a strong inner guidance system. I love the quote from one of my favourite authors, Steven Pressfield: “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine ourselves to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” I shed a tear as I read that RFMs often find it difficult to find the spiritual community they yearn for. And I empathised whole-heartedly with Paula’s many clients who found spiritual connection in nature.
6. Loneliness and the rainforest mind
“Loneliness may be the number one challenge for the RFM.”
This chapter talks about the difficulties RFMs face finding peers – in school, in the workplace, as partners, and as friends.
I find it difficult to talk about my personal experience even here, because I’m afraid of sounding like I think I’m better than other people, which is ironic considering I’ve spent most my life thinking there was something wrong with me because I’ve never felt comfortable or been fully accepted in groups.
I’m an introvert so I don’t need dozens of friends, but the better I understand myself, the more I’ve noticed how energised I feel after spending time around my more rainforest minded friends. Your Rainforest Mind has inspired me to overcome my fear of rejection and seek out more RFMs in my life, bearing in mind the author’s advice, “It is likely fellow RFMs will be shy or awkward for the same reasons that you are, so be brave and take the first step.”
Your Rainforest Mind has contributed enormously to my understanding of myself, my children, and my RFM friends, and I’d love for it to reach as wide an audience as possible. Please help by sharing this post . If you read the book perhaps you could even write your own review, on Facebook, your blog or Amazon.
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Have you read Your Rainforest Mind?
What was your favourite thing about it?
I’d love to hear from you, friends. 🙂
* I bought my own copy of Your Rainforest Mind and was not compensated for this review other than the pleasure of sharing a wonderful book. I am an Amazon affiliate so if you buy something from Amazon after clicking on my links I will receive a few pennies to go towards hosting this blog.
I’m just popping in here today to share a little story about maths and to let you know I’m taking the rest of July off from Laugh, Love, Learn to enjoy some sunshine.
While I’m away, you might be interested in having a look at my most recent post over on my homeschooling blog, Navigating By Joy. From an early age my fabulously independent, strong-willed children resisted all attempts to impose a maths curriculum on them. As with many things, in retrospect it turned out they knew best, and we’ve spent the last four years exploring maths together in all sorts of interesting and creative ways.
In my post How to Make Your Kids Love Maths I reflect on the elements of our curriculum-free approach to maths that have been most successful. I don’t discuss my kids’ OEs as such, but if you have bright, intense children you might find yourself nodding in agreement when I say things like “I did suggest that my kids learn their times tables, but they were having none of it,” or “In maths, as in life, they don’t accept anything unless they know why.”
While I’m on the subject, here’s a little behind-the-scenes example of what maths in our house is like…
Jasper’s been multiplying and dividing numbers competently for years, but for some reason when we were dividing negative numbers last week he decided to take issue with the order of the numbers.
Jasper: “But why does the 12 come before the 6? Are you sure?”
Me: “I’m sure. Remember when we talked about how how multiplication is commutative – like washing your face and cleaning your teeth, whereas division – like putting on your socks and shoes on – isn’t?”
Jasper: “Yes I understand the order’s important, but why can’t the 6 come first?”
Me: “Well. Imagine you had 12 sweets and you wanted to divide them fairly between 6 children…”
Jasper: “But what if said sweets were mints? Or if there were things inside the sweets – some children might not like that. Or they might not like particular flavours of sweets. Plus, there might be allergies.
So a better metaphor would be 12 boards of wood and 6 carpenters. That way we would definitely know that the carpenters wouldn’t be allergic to the boards of wood, because otherwise they wouldn’t be carpenters.”
Me: “Quite. But either way, the 12 boards come before the 6 children, or carpenters or whatever, yes?”
I asked Jasper if I might share this story with you and he kindly agreed. I like to think that my jotting it down in the middle of our maths session showed him how much I appreciate his quirky take on life. 🙂
I’ll be back in August with more stories from a family that embraces its quirkiness. Until then, I wish all my friends in the northern hemisphere a summer filled with golden sunshine, refreshing breezes and the sounds of gently lapping water, and my southern hemisphere friends crisp blue-skied winter days and cosy, snuggly evenings.
How’s maths in your house?
Do you go off on tangents in the middle of teaching your children, too?
I’d love to hear from you, in the comments on on the Laugh, Love, Learn FaceBook page. 🙂
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Most people with emotional overexcitability care passionately about making the world a better place. But if we’re not careful, our acute sensitivity to injustice and tragedy can leave us flooded by negative emotion.
So how do we find out what’s going on in the world so we can contribute positively without feeling overwhelmed? And how do we teach our sensitive children to find their balance?
One evening last week my 11-year-old son came to me in tears.
“I keep thinking our plane’s going to crash or the boat’s going to sink when we go on holiday.”
Despite his imaginational and emotional OE, Jasper isn’t prone to these kind of worries, so I was curious what had triggered him. He told me that after we upgraded his computer to Windows 10, world news stories had begun appearing automatically on his home screen. (“I see all the murders – everywhere!”)
I wonder if the reason Jasper hadn’t got anxious before is because I stopped following the news a long time ago.
I figure that if anything’s that important I’ll hear about it somehow. I see newspaper headlines at petrol stations and subtitled news programmes at the gym, and every fortnight I read the kids’ newspaper NewsAdemic.
I inform myself politically before I vote, I research which charities to support, and I counter the media’s distorted emphasis on tragedy by subscribing to the Good News Network.
The world needs all kinds of people
Some people can deal with life dispassionately and logically. They aren’t overwhelmed by their negative emotions, even when they look directly at tragic situations. Does that make them bad, uncaring people? Of course not. Society needs people who can respond to crises quickly and practically.
And the world also needs the people who are so sensitive and empathic, whose compassion runs so deep that it takes them a while to find their emotional equilibrium when bad things happen.
How do we find our balance?
Here’s my approach:
(1) Be careful what you’re exposed to. If watching the news on TV leaves you so stressed that you shout at your kids, don’t watch it. If reading the headlines depresses and drains you, don’t read them. We’re no good to anyone – our families or the wider world – if we don’t take care of our own emotional wellbeing.
(2) Havestrategies to help you recover when you’re triggered by upsetting events you read or hear about. Go somewhere green for a walk, watch your favourite comedy show, meditate, chat with an upbeat friend or read a funny novel – whatever works for you.
I’m not suggesting we slap a happy face sticker over our empty fuel tanks. We need to acknowledge and be present to our negative emotions. But we also need to know when and how to reach for better feelings.
(4) Seek out alife philosophy that helps you make sense of the world. Whether it’s mindfulness, a spiritual faith, transforming pain into art, or finding solace and wisdom in a book – keep searching for what works for you.
Model a powerful outlook to children
I started writing this post to help me process the shock and sadness I felt last Friday when 52% of the population of my country – motivated, it seemed to me, by bigotry and short-sighted greed – voted to leave the European Union.
Cordie (12), who knows a lot about current affairs thanks mainly to the intelligent YouTubers she follows, was disappointed by the referendum result too, but she was puzzled by the intensity of my upset.
“I don’t understand why this is affecting you so much,” she said, with genuine compassion.
“Because … it’s our future,” was all I could reply, still reeling from the implications of what my country had just so casually thrown away.
“But Mummy, everything’s our future.”
Here was my little girl reflecting back to me the outlook I’ve modelled to her throughout her childhood. Life is so much more than one bad news story, however devastating it feels.
I gave myself another hour clicking sad, empathetic emoticons on my friends’ FaceBook feeds, then I sat down to watch The Big Bang Theory with my family.
Politics can wait until I’ve found my balance.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
What do you remember about becoming a teenager? Three things about my thirteenth birthday stick in my mind. The first is being thrilled to receive a pair of blue and yellow suede ‘disco skates’. The second is my grandmother sucking in her breath and telling me, “You’re a teenager now. There’s trouble ahead!” And the third is that right after that I lost control skating down a hill and badly skinned my knees and chin.
Secular Western society doesn’t do much to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. So when a friend recommended a group which supports girls as they move into puberty, Cordie and I went along and in June 2015 Cordie began ‘Girls Journeying Together‘.
Over the last year the girls have met up once a month to explore topics related to growing up. In world which puts a great deal of pressure on young women to look and behave in certain ways, I love the way Kim, who led the group, encouraged the girls to take regular quiet time to tune in with themselves, and to try always to be true to themselves.
While the girls met, we mums would chat over a walk or coffee, our conversation enriched by thought-provoking questions Kim gave us that complemented what she was exploring with the girls that month. In this way, the mothers were able to share our journeys as our little girls become women, which included reflecting on our own experiences of growing up. We found this process surprisingly healing, as we each let go of emotional baggage we’d unconsciously been carrying around since our own teens. I’m sure we all emerged better equipped to support our daughters and to enjoy our changing relationships with them.
We were also inspired by the positive experiences a few of the women had when they were our daughters’ age. Many of the mums recalled starting their periods as a time of secrecy and embarrassment, but hearing one woman talk of being taken out for a celebratory meal, and another being given a special gift to mark the occasion gave us all ideas for how we might do things differently with our own daughters.
An end-of-journey celebration
Last Saturday marked the end of the girls’ year together. To celebrate, Kim invited us mums to join our daughters for a ceremony and party. The girls were asked to prepare something which would show their friends a side of them they may not have seen – to talk about a hobby, for instance. The mums, meanwhile, were asked to think about how our daughters have changed over the last year, and to be ready to hold a metaphorical mirror up to them, reflecting back how we see them.
Managing our overexcitabilities at an intense ceremony
Cordie and I relished the focus the final ceremony provided, but as we absorbed the intense emotional energy of the group, we also had to deal with our OEs.
The combination of my enthusiasm and my OEs means I worry about dominating groups. And while I’m worrying about whether if I’ve said too much (or too little), I waste energy monitoring myself, which leaves me less present to what’s going on around me. What I loved about the girls’ group celebration was that during Kim’s opening meditation she reminded each person in the group to be herself, “no need to be any different, however that is at this moment. Not to have to perform or try to be anyway other than each of us are this evening.” With those beautiful words** I felt myself relax. I remembered that I was among loving friends and that it was the combining of our unique individual energies that made the space so special. (Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see the whole world that way?)
Cordie also had a wobbly moment. For her presentation she chose to sing and play guitar. She sings beautifully, and even though nerves caused her voice to waver slightly, no one noticed and everyone obviously enjoyed her performance. But because she didn’t do her best, Cordie got very tense and upset, which took her attention away from the celebration. Fortunately Kim was on hand to provide loving reassurance (of the kind that we often hear more easily from a non-parent!) and Cordie recovered.
When it was my turn in the spotlight, during the ‘hold a mirror to your daughter’ ritual, I acknowledged not only Cordie’s courage in performing in front of the group but – even more important – her growing willingness and ability to move through the intense negative feelings she sometimes feels. It’s not always easy, but when we’re stuck, simply setting an intention to change our negative thinking is an important step in setting ourselves free to be present to the joy that’s around us. Which in Cordie’s case included entertaining her friends with her singing and playing for most of the subsequent party. 🙂
** I wrote to Kim, asking her to remind me of the special words she used which so put me at my ease. Here’s part of her reply:
“Basically, as in girls’ group, I want everyone to feel ‘right’, however it is that they are feeling. Too often we can make ourselves wrong, or think ourselves wrong, and that is one of the things that we seek to stop ourselves doing over the year in girls’ group – so that we can let ourselves relax and just be who we are, whoever that is today.”