Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Honest Discussions

Last week, as Alex was winding down before bed, I overheard him telling himself all about his brain injury. I came in on the middle of the conversation he was having with himself.

"...and that is called a brain injury. I got it when I was born. It means that my brain sometimes doesn't work the way I want it to. That's why I have to work lefty..."

I didn't interrupt. I left him to himself to talk it out.

A year ago, when Alex was 2 1/2, on our way into Boston for his annual MRI, we explained to him the details of his injury, how it happened and how it was affecting his balance and left side. Since that time, he has had many questions and has overheard us discussing his brain with doctors, teachers, relatives and parents. Because we try to keep a positive spin at all times on our situation, to help keep us all encouraged and moving forward in a positive direction, and because we know that Alex internalizes every word we say about him, our conversations about his injury are all about working hard to overcome an obstacle that can be surmounted. Alex believes that with hard work, lefty will become as strong as righty, and his balance will eventually normalize. Occasionally, when he gets upset with himself for tripping or not being as coordinated as Izzy, we honestly tell him that he has to work harder than his sister because of his injury, but that he should not be afraid of hard work.

I have at times observed surprise in people who overhear how honestly we talk to Alex about his injury. Not every child is the same, and so perhaps this approach would not work with all children, but for one who can understand, talking about the injury seems to ease Alex's anxiety, and provide him with a greater sense of determination, especially when he observes the ease with which other children accomplish daily tasks. Putting on his crocs, for example, was a major, major hurtle. He was so frustrated when he realized that his younger sister could quickly put hers on without assistance, while he couldn't even get his toes inside without help. We kept telling Alex that when he was ready to start trying to put them on himself, he should tell us. For a while, he refused. We encouraged him to act independently, but did not push the issue. And of course, at some point, he decided he was ready to try. He can now put one shoe on no problem and he can get the other one started without assistance. Getting out the door used to be an incredible battle, mostly because Alex didn't want to sit for his shoes to be put on because his inability to put them on himself was a daily downer. Now that he can do part of the job himself, he loves to sit and get put them on. He leaves every day with a sense of accomplishment.

We spent a lot of the summer in NH this year, surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, and grand parents. The kids play together, no matter their age differences. They run and swim together, go blueberry picking, hiking, share their toys and books, tell each other stories, go fishing. It is amazing how just being kids together, without schedules or planned activities, encourages them to grow. Alex keeps up, and all the cousins encourage him at every turn. When he falls running, they pick him up. When he is nervous about jumping into the water, they cheer and clap. When he has trouble holding a tennis racquet or fish rod, they guide his grip. No one is afraid to talk about his "lefty", or to encourage him to use his left side.

And so for Alex, his weakness in his left side has become a simple fact of life that must be dominated and overcome. This attitude should help him in the coming years, when playing sports in school will likely bring on another round of realizations and possible frustrations. We hope that building his self-esteem and outlook on life early will prepare him for the many stages of the emotional evolution that develops in children with health challenges. This early emotional strength is quite possibly the single greatest gift parents can give to their children, whether they face injuries or not, but especially for children who may find themselves in last place in physical activities. Yesterday, Alex told me that he wins every race he enters (in our track club summer series), even though he usually comes in last place. "Really?" I asked. "Yes, I won because I participated." Participation has become our summer concept, and our mantra.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Sport All To One's Own

Alex had a very bad day at school last week, and I was surprised because he adores his new school and has been thriving. He was angry and uncooperative, a sign that something wasn't right. Thinking over the day, I realized his mood swing had begun that morning, at his before school karate lesson.

Alex has been taking karate for over a year, and the lessons have helped his balance and strength considerably. I can not rave enough about the martial arts to help children with brain injuries. At this last lesson, Izzy joined Alex for the first time. She has not been interested in karate, but has hit a stage of life where she is ready to begin. She is incredibly agile, has excellent balance and is an all around amazing athlete. She was the star of the lesson. Alex's heart was broken. He acted out in the lesson and I had to have him sit twice, to calm down. He acted out on the way to school, and I made him sit again to calm down. So, it was no wonder he continued to act out in school.

Alex napped after school and I never mentioned his poor behavior in school that day. I let him play and have quiet time at home, while I tried to figure out how to approach this new problem. Alex's self esteem was devastated when he witnessed the ease with which his sister mastered karate, when he has been working at it for over a year. I finally decided to talk about it with both children at bedtime. When I brought up the karate class, Alex said,"Mommy, I'm not good at anything. Izzy is good at everything." He was finally able to articulate the problem, which is pretty incredible for a 3 year old.

We then played a game, where each child told the other what the other was good at. Izzy went first. I asked Izzy what she thought Alex was good at. She was so thrilled to tell him: karate, running, drawing, being a nice brother. Alex put his head in his pillow. He was proud and sad at the same time, because he still felt he wasn't as good at these things as Izzy. Then it was Alex's turn. There is something about praising another person that truly inflates the speaker's self-esteem. He told Izzy that she is a fish in the water, that she is a very fast runner, that she is also a nice sister. It was an amazing evening. I snuggled with both of them as they fell asleep. When it was Alex's turn, we talked more about what he is good at. He wanted to hear it repeated that he was good at things. I explain to the kids all the time that one may be fast, but the other can run long distances; one may be good in the water, but the other is good on the tricycle. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

The next day, we talked about whether Alex could handle having Izzy in his karate class. It was, after all, his sport, and if he wanted to keep it that way, I would have to find another time of day for Izzy to have a lesson. At first Alex said he did not want Izzy in his class, but Izzy piped up that she wanted to join him. I explained that since they are best friends, they should find it fun to be together in a class. Finally, Alex agreed to let Izzy try it one more time and to then decide if he wanted her in class or not.

The next day at class, I cheated slightly. I kept Izzy in my lap for the first part of class while Alex got settled in and was the center of attention. Then, I let Izzy joined. She did well for about 10 minutes and then lost interest. I also joined the class, to participate with the kids. Alex maintained his poise, and was completely happy at the end of the class. We had one major success. Not sure if it will last, it may need to be readdressed, but for now, we had a success and the more successes in the bank, the better we will be prepared for the downturns.