Sunday, July 17, 2011

Learned helplessness....

I have been taking Tessie to the brand new UNE pediatric clinic which specializes in PT, OT, ST and education for children with special needs. The have put Tessie through a gamut of "workouts" to see her level of needs and while they are busy doing that, I am sitting in a chair getting grilled by whomever is not working with Tess at the time.

For example, while PT is working with Tess, OT and ST are asking me questions about Tess, about me, about Tessie's birth, her medical history, my medical history, our home life, our other girls and on and on. Trying to figure out the mystery that is Tess.

Anyway, Tessie was a total rockstar. She was on her feet (with support), reaching up for something that they put just out of reach to see what she would do. She got it. That's right. My little Toodle Bug weebled and wobbled but didn't fall down. And didn't give up until she got the bells in her little hand. She played "row, row, row your boat" and actually participated in the "rowing" part as best she could. They brought out different switches to activate toys and sounds and she was all over it and knew just what to do with almost all of them. Their were a few that she didn't understand but not many.

I, on the other hand, did not perform quite so well. Oh yeah. Let me tell you the exquisite torture of watching your child do really well while answering questions with, "I don't know. I always just do it for her." or "I didn't know she could do that".

The therapists were all extremely kind and told me not to beat myself up over it. That I was a good and loving mom. I'm not so sure.

I mean, yes, I am a good mom but what happened to letting Tess try things for herself? What happened to expecting more out of her? Why wasn't I giving her choices, even if only limited ones, that she was more than capable of making?

Because I just wanted it done with. Like getting her dressed. Yes, if given the chance, she will choose her own shirt, or dress and even earrings. I don't give her that chance very often. She should be getting it every single day. The same with everything else. It is just easier, and takes less effort on my part to do it myself.

I know that it sounds horrible but it is the truth. And look at it from my point of view. Every time I give her a choice, it takes three times as long to get even the simplest of tasks done. And their are always more to do right behind it. It gets so overwhelming because there is no end in sight.

Basically I realized that I am in a rut with our daily routine.

But there is one other fairly important reason why I do everything for Tessie. I want her to know that even if she can't do something, I love her and am proud of her just as she is. I want her to know, without any question in her mind or heart, that I love her unconditionally. I am sometimes afraid that she won't be able to either understand or perform the task that is being asked of her and think that she is disappointing me. As Dr. Phil would say (and yes, the man drives me nuts but he is dead on with this one), I want to be her "soft place to fall" because that is what every child deserves.

I now understand that as far as The Toots is concerned, I have taken it to the extreme. While being so quick to do things for her, I have taken away her power. Making choices is a powerful thing for anyone, especially for a child who cannot physically move herself to what she wants or verbally ask for it.

Learned Helplessness. That is the term for what I have been doing with Tessie. You can google it. But basically what it means is that I have taught Tessie how to be helpless. Charlie has often quoted that term to me with my stubborn refusal to hear it. I was being a good and loving mom. Right? Yeah, right.

While watching those therapists work with Tessie and seeing the obvious pride on her face when she succeeded, it hit home. Charlie was right. I was not demanding enough from Tess. She always buckled her knees when I tried to get her to stand, she would whimper "mama" during something hard asked of her at school. I sometimes suspect she is faking not feeling well at times in order to get to sleep with me at night. And I reward that behavior handsomely. And why wouldn't I? The little shit is a master manipulator and she has learned at the feet of the master: me.

Well, as Dylan sang, "The times they are a changing" and so are things around here.

When we were away, I let Tessie pick out her own treat at the store and instead of me picking out two things I thought she might like and having her choose between them, I showed her toy by toy, her choices until she reached out her hands for what she wanted. And she loved it! She had this big grin on her face the whole time.

And yesterday, I started reading her an age appropriate chapter book instead of the books I've been reading to her since she was one. I had her choose between Charlotte's Web and Ramona and Her Mother and she picked the latter. We read 80 pages before she had had enough. I was in shock. She was laughing in the appropriate places and really seemed to get it. It was so much fun for her and for me.

Big girl steps. (I originally wrote baby steps; change is hard!)

Tessie and I are taking them together...


  1. As usual your comments move me to tears. It takes real guts to look at our failings and admit them - and you have the courage to do so in a very public way - BUT your doing so will inevitably help others as well.

    I think that all of us hurt or hold back our own children by forcing them to conform to our own standards and expectations - God knows I did. But I'm willing to bet that my children will fault me for not being sufficiently involved in their choices. That is because I had a stifling mom and a laissez-faire dad and I was so grateful to my dad for staying OUT of my decisions in the long run that I felt it was the wiser choice in the long run.
    Again, thanks for sharing your pain and wisdom - we appreciate your honesty!!!

  2. I don't take well to being humbled but it seems to happen again and again when I read your stuff.


  3. Big girl steps....for you both. This parenting thing is a difficult, humbling, wild, amazing ride. We all play mother bird - to a fault, at times - and it is done out of love and sometimes, convenience. With Nathan's hearing impairment, I catch myself repeating what he has said instantly before someone can say that they didn't understand or didn't hear him. In a way, I guess I was trying to protect him and me but I have been doing a disservice to him and it wasn't until his teacher pointed it out, I realized that I needed to check myself. You are amazing - and your girls know it! Change is hard but I know that you will be there cheering on a newly more independent and self-dependent Tess.
    And btw, Nate & I are devouring the Ramona series. Wonderful memories being brought back for me and made for us both. Much love to you all.