a life bigger than labels: anxiety, ocd, adhd, allergies


i promise not to yell: navigating homework hell

While I tutored a particularly unhappy student last week, the mother stuck her head in the room and said, “My God, you have the patience of a saint! I don’t know how you do it!”

As a tutor of dyslexic learners, I spend a lot of time with kids who feel angry, frustrated or sad. That’s not to suggest that dyslexics are unpleasant people to be around. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s just that during the hour my students spend with me, I ask them to confront one of the things that most frustrates them: the code that is our written language. It’s hard.

I don’t know where I get it from, but I have this well of patience that I draw from during our lessons. It sustains me when my students repeatedly slay me with pretend swords, kick the soccer ball incessantly against the wall, or most unhappily, curl up in a ball under the table, refusing to come out at all.

I never get (or even feel) angry. I speak kindly to them, play with them, tell them I understand, wait them out. I never give up on them. In the end, I teach them to read.

I’m a freakin saint!

Yeah. By now you have to know that something is coming, right? Otherwise, I don’t doubt you’ll be nominating me for the most annoying and self-aggrandizing blogger of the century award.

When that mother called me a saint last week, my heart just sank. If only she could have seen me 45 minutes earlier when I was “helping” Olivia with her homework. For some reason, I do not have this well of patience for my daughter. When we start out on her math, the well is full, but inexplicably, I suck it dry before we’ve finished our first multiplication problem. Then I get to breaking all my rules.

I regularly counsel my parents on how to talk to their kids during homework and reading time. I instruct them not to raise their voices or show frustration. I explain that, no, their child is not lazy or indifferent or unintelligent. They have dyslexia, which means that while they will make very measurable progress with me, they will read and write inconsistently, make unexpected mistakes, and tire easily when at these tasks. None of these troubles demonstrate a lack of will or effort. When working on reading and writing, kids with learning differences (and all kids really) require patience, kindness, and understanding (If they have dyslexia, they also require a properly administered Orton-Gillingham method of instruction, but that’s the topic of a different post).

I impress upon my parents that their child’s self-esteem matters far more than his or her ability to spell “horticulture” correctly.

It sounds so easy when I say it to them.

Olivia does not have dyslexia. However, she has what I would call it’s equivalent in math. Some people call it dyscalculia. I call it a royal pain in the neck–especially for Olivia. Her inability to easily grasp math concepts isn’t what frustrates me, however. No, it’s her inattention that drives me absolutely batty. Typically, I cannot even get through one sentence without losing her. I say, “The denominator is the number on the–” and she’s off. Already upside down, asking a question about dinner, or playing with the dog. So we start again: “Olivia, let’s talk about the number on the bot–” and she’s off again. This time asking if she should wash her hands or checking (again) that I’m not angry because she keeps interrupting.

I could say that I cannot teach her because she can’t engage, but guess what? Many of my other students have the same issues with attention. I manage to teach all of them just fine.

Where is my well of patience? Where is my common sense? My experience? My understanding? When I feel myself slipping, I know I should just leave the room, but there often isn’t time. If we have 45 minutes to get the homework done, I can’t spend 10 minutes of it decompressing in the bathroom!

Before I know it, I’m showing frustration: I huff; I repeat instructions in the same way, only louder (as if THAT ever helped a student learn anything). Eventually, I yell.

Olivia knows the rules. She’ll tell me, “Mom, you’re not supposed to yell when you’re teaching me.” Sometimes she yells back. Othertimes she cries. But the worst is when she gets quiet.

I understand why this happens. She’s my daughter. I am her mother. Parents and kids tend to both behave badly when they try to work together. I know I’m not alone (please tell me I’m not alone!). This is often why other parents hire me: because they tried and failed to do it themselves. The thing is, we cannot afford a tutor right now.

So what to do? I suppose this post is my little pep talk to myself, and to you if you need it. Olivia deserves the same kind of instruction that my students get. When I work with her, I need to dig deeper, to figure out how to wear my tutor hat instead of my mother hat. I need to say everything like it’s the first time (even if it’s the twentieth); I need to leave the room if I have to (even if I don’t think there’s time for deep breathing!), and I need to remember my cardinal rule: a child’s self-esteem matters more than his or her ability to spell “horticulture”–or to reduce fractions. Period.

So the next time she’s hanging from the ceiling fan as I try to explain cross-multipyling:

I promise not to yell.



how do you tell a mom that her child needs help?

Just four years ago, I sat in a conference with Olivia’s second grade teacher holding my head in my hands, sobbing.  The counselor and the teacher looked at the ceiling and made small talk while I tried to compose myself.  They hadn’t told me anything I didn’t already know about Olivia.  What got me was the barely veiled contempt I heard in the teacher’s voice.  She could not see, nor was she looking for, the light inside my daughter.  The boot-heel of her coldness crushed my already-so-worried mother’s heart on the spot.

Today, I sat across from Olivia’s smiling sixth grade teacher and listened to things like:  “She’s an amazing writer!” And, “her attitude is so improved from fourth grade!”  And, “I’m so sorry she has to go through this other stuff with math, and her worries, but she’s doing great in my class!”

I heard enthusiasm.  I heard empathy.  I heard endearment.

I marveled at where we’ve come.   So many factors and people play into Olivia’s transformation, but the impetus for all of that, I think, is information.   There is just so much power in knowing.  Don’t you think?

With a lot of luck, we benefited from: a pediatrician who helped us understand ADHD in girls; a book lent by my mother about the connections between the gut and the brain; the courage of another mother who gently suggested OCD, the wisdom and patience of a psychologist who empowered us with structure and strategies.

Not everyone is so lucky.  Olivia came home from school the other day upset because the kids at school were teasing a classmate named Wade, again.  We’ve known Wade since first grade.  If I had to put labels on the behaviors that I see Wade exhibit at school, I’d reach first for Tourette’s and anxiety, then maybe OCD.  I wouldn’t rule out Asberger’s.  As Olivia has become more self-aware over the years, she has made similar, but less label-driven observations.  “Mom, Wade has issues like me.”

She worries about him.  She sees the counselor mishandle (not handle) his extreme anxiety on fire-drill  days.  She sees the teachers inappropriately punish him for spontaneously erupting into “woop! woop!” during class.  She watches as otherwise friendly children exclude him from their play because they don’t understand his desperate and increasingly aggressive attempts to gain their attention.

I am amazed by the power of Olivia’s knowledge.  Because she interprets Wade’s behaviors as impulses and anxieties that he can’t always control, she sees him so differently from everyone else.  Instead of a baby, a discipline problem, or a wierdo, she sees a sweet boy with neurological differences that probably require a combination of treatment, accomodation and acceptance (no, she wouldn’t use those words!).    She has even lamented the ineptitude of the school counselor, saying, “He’s nice mom, but he’s terrible.  I don’t think he knows anything about OCD.”

Wade’s mother is a sweet and gentle soul, and I’d be willing to bet she’s cried in a conference or two of her own.

I’ve wanted to talk to her for years.  I’ve refrained because it doesn’t feel like my place.  On a few occasions, I’ve tried to open the door by sharing information about Olivia, but she hasn’t stepped through.   I learned, when first educating myself about Gareth’s dyslexia eight years ago, that you can’t tell parents anything about their children unless they ask.  And even then it can go badly.  Most parents need to come around to things on their own.

Meanwhile, as Wade’s peers have matured, his differences have begun to stand out more starkly.  Where the class has morphed into a group of dramatic pre-teens, self-conscious about fashion, their bodies and their behavior, Wade still seems the child: unaware of his body in space, oblivious to his lack of social savvy, and increasingly aggressive and anxious in his efforts to cope.

Olivia has asked me to speak up, but I feel helpless.  Who would I talk to? and under what pretense? For now we are resigned that we cannot intervene.

However, if we cannot give information, then we can at least give enthusiasm, empathy, and endearment. We can show them the same thing I needed from Olivia’s second grade teacher all those years ago: that we see the light in Wade, shining bright behind his various behaviors.

We hope that helps in some small way.

What would you do?


when compliments go wrong

In a quiet moment this past weekend (with a “Frankenstorm” bearing down on us, no less), Olivia and I talked about her worries.  “I’m having a lot of them,” she told me, as if I hadn’t heard that mantra a gazillion times already.

“I know, Bug.  I know you are,” I answered, adding, “I can see how hard you’re working.  I can see that you have a lot in your head right now.  [All good.  But here comes the trouble.]  I am so proud of you for how you’re handling it all.”

Can you see the ice thinning beneath me? I was sure I heard it crack.

Let’s go back a few years.

During my son Gareth’s 7th year, a darkness settled upon him.  While I was washing the dishes, or perhaps studying for my orals, this storm cloud came in and swallowed up my bright curious boy.  The origins of that storm? I could not fathom.  Family outings became burdens, minor transitions: impossible, and homework? torture.   Pencils cowered in their holder when they heard the door slam after school.  They knew, not a single tip would survive the afternoon.

One day, after a particularly bad time at school, Gareth receded to the corner of the play room where he lay in a fetal position facing the wall.  With his little hands pressed to his face, he wailed a familiar complaint: “You don’t understand.  I’m SO STUPID!!”

I responded as any parent would: “Of course you’re not stupid!  Why would you say that?  You’re SO SMART!”

But he was right:  I did not understand.  We knew from the inquisitive and perceptive questions he asked that he was, in fact, very bright.   In our desperate need to appease his misery, we reassured him again and again of what we knew: He was SO SMART.  We asked him and ourselves, “why was he so hard on himself?”

We couldn’t have known we were making things worse.  Gareth has dyslexia, which in its simplest accounting, means a problem smart people have with reading.  Unaware, we sent him off to school every day, where much of the work centered around reading and writing.  He quickly discovered what we wouldn’t figure out for six months:  he couldn’t learn to read in the same way the other kids could.  As he literally banged his head against the wall, begging those uncooperative letters to unlock their secrets for him, we just kept telling him how smart he was.  The more we said it, the more sure he felt that he would one day disappoint us if we ever discovered the terrible truth.   Oh the pressure!

Ugh.  Even eight years later, it’s hard to think about that.

So…as those words of pride for Olivia slipped out of my mouth the other day, I paused over them.  Olivia simply said, “Thanks mom,” as she crawled under my arm for a snuggle.  But I’ve been thinking about it since.

What does it mean to be “proud” of her for coping with her anxiety so well?  In a child’s sometimes black and white world, could that mean that I’m not proud when she can’t cope? And what about when I tell her she’s so “brave.”  Is “so brave” the new “so smart” in our house? Am I creating an expectation?

Sigh—a lot of questions, I know.

Maybe I’m just nitpicking?

I really don’t think so.

There is so much shame associated with losing control—whether through an impulse, a compulsion, or a fear.  So many times in the day, Olivia hears exasperated utterances of, “stop that,” or “settle down,” or “enough!”  Teachers and parents (us included) give her plenty of opportunity to internalize the idea that her way of being in the world is something to be changed, quieted, or hidden.

If I am “so proud” when she manages to do these things, perhaps I risk sending the same message.

What to do?  Of course I shouldn’t hide my pride from her.  Instead, I’m thinking that as we learned with Gareth, we need to consider context, timing, and semantics.  Just as dyslexia doesn’t change Gareth’s IQ, OCD doesn’t change Olivia’s character. Our compliments need to acknowledge the challenges so that we can shove them over on the couch and make room for the child.  (Smart people can have dyslexia.  Brave people can have OCD).

Good or bad day: we are always proud, and when the time is right, I should tell her so.  In those particular moments when she finds success, however, perhaps “proud” is the wrong word.  I’m not so much proud as I am happy.  Happy to see her send OCD packing, with his mean-spirited bag of tricks, off to a corner to sulk.  Happy to see him momentarily slouched, grouchy and defeated.

While he’s there we can celebrate.  When he comes back we can be strong—or not.  And the whole time, we can be proud.