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Comfort Zones: Ever Widening Them (updated)

May 15, 2011

This is one of May’s B-O-B posts.
Have you ever noticed that you function better when you feel comfortable and confident in your surroundings and that when you are unsure of yourself, you are more likely to stumble? The same is true for our kids. In their element, where they are sure of all the important variables and comfortable expressing themselves, they make better eye contact, engage more willingly in communication, show attachment, and function at their best. Remove them from their comfort zones and we have vastly different children. We have children who may have been singing at the top of their lungs only an hour before now displaying selective mutism when we take them somewhere new, or who were happy and cheerful now pensive and moving towards serious meltdown.
Part of helping my three children function better in the world is something we call widening their comfort zones, areas in which they feel safe and comfortable because they know they have the tools to navigate that particular situation. The reality, although it might not be obvious, is that part of helping myself deal with what can be crippling anxiety is that I spend a fair amount of time working to widen my own comfort zones. The first forays into new settings can be extremely uncomfortable for me (to put it mildly), and I am fairly sure that some of the triggers for my migraines is the stress involved in widening the comfort zone or in continuing to force myself to move in places that have not yet become my comfort zone.
My first few years of teaching involved stopping along the drive to vomit, each and every time I had to go teach. Even all these years later I have a gag reflex some days that makes getting out the door difficult, and teaching is definitely my comfort zone now. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and neural pathways set in place have a tendency to fire whether we want them to or not. Our bodies remember what our minds have gotten over already. And that’s a lovely battle to wage: having a calm mind but a raging body, time after inexplicable time.
Of all the things I’ve passed on to my children, this set of hurdles is one I dearly want to help them avoid, and so the task of widening their comfort zones before their neural pathways are set on a path of making them bodily ill when forced outside the comfort zone takes on a whole new level of urgency for me, although not at the expense of going to the other extreme. We work at widening our comfort zones together, in tandem. Hey, I didn’t get called candy-ass for nothing (thanks, Dad–actually, I was a nervous child, and it did fit, even if it didn’t help). 
Distinctly outside her comfort zone.
I find situations where I have to go to something where I know no one acutely unpleasant. So, too, do my kids. Birthday parties are one of those areas for me, so when I at least know one of the parents there, it makes the whole thing so much better. Teaching our children that if they can find one thing familiar in a new situation, they may feel more comfortable is a good trick to extending the comfort zone.
A few weeks ago, we attended Rosie’s best friend’s birthday party. Rosie managed a new place (the Y, and a new experience, the public pool with the heat and the noise) because she had tethers: she desperately wanted to be with her friend, she was extremely comfortable with the friends’ parents (she’d had her first sleepover ever with them that previous evening and was perfectly at home with them), and I was there. The pool was an obstacle. She managed to get in for a short time, and then she managed to sit there and watch her friend for a little longer, but the meltdown was building. After about ten minutes, it became necessary to compromise: she changed back to clothes and we stood there, her tucked into my side, while we watched the other kids swim and we chatted with the friend’s mom. The friend’s mom made the experience a good one for both Rosie and me; we didn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable: having a friendly face around makes a world of difference. We managed to get past the sensory issues (hers and mine) and stay for the whole party, where Rosie, instead of being off and separate as she usually is at these things, was right up in the middle of it once it moved past the pool part.

We succeeded in widening both of our comfort zones, although I’m totally with her on the pool experience.  
Lil’s state project; she’ll have to present it this week.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my middle child, Lily, has issues presenting in front of the classroom. It’s a normal anxiety-inducing experience for all children (and a good many adults). What differs is the intensity of the reaction to being asked to. She shuts down and won’t budge. Yeah, she probably gets this from me, as well. Heck, all three of my kids outshine me when it comes to what I could or would do in terms of public performances when I was their age, and I’m “normal”! 
So, the last experience, giving a book report, was a spectacular no-go after days of prompting and reinforcing by the teacher. Not a happy time, let me tell you, especially since I didn’t know that the tug-of-war was going on to get her to do it; Lil wasn’t talking about it and the teacher wasn’t communicating there was an issue. This time around, Lily and I are being proactive. Since we know she can lock up when forced to do something on demand, we’re practicing. She did it for her grandparents, all mumbly and face averted, but she did it. She did it for her sister in the car, and although her poster is already at school, we’ll continue to practice because she’s being (unfairly, I think) graded on posture, eye contact, audibility in her presentation. We’ll be working on those things, and I’m not asking for different grading criteria, either. She’s got to navigate this world, and the sooner we work on the skills she needs, the better off she will be. She’s got a brand new barbie doll waiting for her successful completion, so she’s got something nice waiting for her on the other side of the experience to strengthen the likelihood she’ll be successful.
The boy peels a boiled egg for potato salad he’s making.
Of all my children, Bobby’s comfort zones are the most narrow and the discrepancy between functionality inside and outside the comfort zone the most disparate. Taking him outside his comfort zone is emotionally painful for both of us. I spent years trying to avoid it (but thankfully managing to push past that some–not enough, but some). With my own experiences the last five or six years of intentionally fighting back against my own issues with new places and people, I’m getting stronger and more determined to make the entire damn world not only my comfort zone, but my kids’ comfort zones, as well. 
After last summer’s horrible stories dealing with autistic young men my son’s age being detained by police for looking odd or reacting oddly, I realized, especially after watching him at a store, when we’d sent him to get a cart and bring it back to us, with his eyes darting back and forth and his subvocalizing as he worked to successfully complete this task, we had to fix this. We had to widen his comfort zone so that he could navigate a store without looking suspicious or odd. We had to make him feel capable of doing this task. Since he and I shop together, it was a simple, though scary, thing to implement, and after a year of working on it, he’s totally within his comfort zone; he has a list, his own cart, he checks out and goes and loads up the groceries in the car and comes back and finds me. He’s not constantly darting his eyes or engaging in a steady stream of monologue. And he feels so good about what he’s learned to do, how far he’s come, that the successes continue to build on themselves. The newfound confidence in his ability to master new skills means he’s willing and self-motivated to try new things.
He now cooks half the family meals; he pours over the recipe books, painstakingly writes out the ingredients he needs, and he finds them in the store that week. Yes, we still have pitfalls, like the time he put the keep-refrigerated tortellini in the cabinet because pasta goes in the cabinet (and I narrowly discovered that he was going to cook tortellini that had spent five days in the cabinet instead of the fridge), or like this week when he pulled a dirty knife from the sink to use to slice something he was cooking (holy crap the things you don’t realize you need to cover). But instead of letting these missteps paralyze either of us, it galvanizes us, makes us look at just how deeply do all these things need to be broken down into the constituent parts. It feels a bit like Annie Sullivan with Helen Keller at times, but, by gosh, it’s nothing short of phenomenal progress for a kid whose future was written off by psychiatrists when he was five.
Widening our world, our children’s worlds, is hard, painful work. Sometimes, it’s easier to not, but the price we pay for that inaction is heavy. Yes, breaks to regroup and refresh ourselves are absolutely vital, but when we think it’d be easier if we just go ahead and do something for our child rather than teach them how to do it and wait out the inevitable mistakes and messes, we rob them of widening their comfort zones, of helping them get a steady stream of successes under their belts. We want to spare them the failures, keep them protected from the frustration, but they need those mistakes, they need to learn to persevere, to overcome so that they know they CAN overcome. They need to know their limits and how to get around them.
The kindest thing we can do for our children is often the hardest thing of all to do: to ask them to try and then to let them fail. By letting them experience the failure along with the realization that the world didn’t end, we prime them to better self-regulate their emotions, and in doing so, we widen their comfort zones.

Update: May 15, 2011:

Lily earned a 97 for her presentation and a 100 on her poster. Go Lily!

Lily bowling.

Bobby attended two busy events with me for the college: Ranch Day and the Certificate Ceremony. He sat by himself in a very crowded room with hundreds of people while my Dad and I walked in with th faculty and sat on the other side of the room. He snapped photos, he said hello to people and he handled himself with aplomb. Go Bobby!

at Ranch Day

Rosie attended a birthday party last week that involved bowling, something she was scared to do. She had a blast and bowled three games. Go Rosie!

bowling with confidence
originally posted 4.30.11

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