Friday, June 18, 2010

Play Therapy

That term sounds really sexy to me. "Sexy" is a term that some publicists use about a good story worth pitching to a journalist. Who thought of putting those two words together? Who thought of this idea in the first place? I don't know and I guess I don't really care but all I know is that my kids really need it.

I first heard about it when Logan was starting special needs preschool. The school system used the term "play counseling" or just "counseling," but it seems to me that, for any child under 4, counseling is therapy through play.

My kids seem to benefit from play therapy. I only wish we had more time to do as much play therapy as possible especially now that I see that anxiety is really bothering them. For the little one, he seemed to have social anxiety. He does like being around other children but only if it is a very small group like say three. It can be a larger group if the group meets daily. Otherwise things are hard for him. He easily shies away when more kids show up at a park.

How am I supposed to go to Disney World? Even with the disability pass to skip lines, we still have the crowds to deal with. This is why we have promised ourselves to stay in the park no more than four hours a day. I hope we can keep to our plan.

Back to play therapy... I have been going nuts about it because I am determined to deal with Spencer's anxiety while he is still little (3). I even bought an Asian American family doll set for his therapist to use during her sessions with him. (YES, THERE IS ONE and they are not wearing kimonos- because Duh, Asian Americans don't wear kimonos everyday!) I have also bought more games to help him do interactive game playing with friends and be more comfortable around them.

I think it can definitely help him but we are still testing things out and I have been very avid about making playdates with just about anyone I can. I practically wear a sign around my neck saying, "Please come over and play with my son." Hopefully I can help him make some friends this way. I need to be very proactive because in September, he will be going to school outside of our neighborhood and so seeing his classmates afterschool on weekdays will be nearly impossible. Hopefully we can make more dates. I wouldn't mind if he had three playdates a week. He really needs the one on one interaction as much as possible if he is ever going to make it in the playground.

I also try to play with Spencer when we go to the park. In our park, the jungle gym and slides are on top of a large sandbox. Last year, this wasn't really an issue for him but this year it is. He hates the sand. He has regressed with tactile sensitivity which is really sad because we had really made a lot of progress last year. It takes a while to get him used to the sandbox and I usually have to drag him there and cheerfully ignore his protests. Once there, he might be able to play on the sand but playing with the sand is doubly hard for him.

I found a sand mold set made of numbers on the internet recently and thought I had discovered gold since he is obsessed with numbers. As soon as it came in the mail, I took it out and took out my stolen sand from the park and started to play with it with Spencer. He was squirmish but the numbers held him attention and desire. However, when I took him to the park to play with it, he started to do okay and there was even a prospective same-age friend that wanted to play with him as well.

Those first few minutes were great. The two of them molded numbers out of sand and they were happy because I sat there and helped them and said things like, "Oh, you made 15," and for Spencer, because he is so crazy about math, I said, "Oh, look, you made 100." You would think that I struck it rich and became "Therapy Mom of the Year" but then something happened and everything was ruined.

The Number Sand Molds were way too interesting. Kids as old as 7 would come up to us and take the molds and make more numbers. Younger kids did too. The little ones would grab things and walk away and in my park, sharing is really encouraged especially if you have plenty of number molds, but I really wanted to just say out loud, "Please don't take those away. It only costs 10 dollars but I have to spend 25 dollars from that store to get free shipping. Also, Spencer will have a fit if he lost the two "zero" molds to make his favorite "100" number." And I really wanted to tell the other older kids, "Please go away, my son is not ready for such a big crowd. We just want one kid with him and now he's gone because you scared him off."

Who would understand me if I said this? Do I have to tell everyone about my kid's psychological problems to get a little bit of space. It's an open park space so it's not like I can take a few square feet and section it off for my own therapy session and only let "select" children in. By the way, while I have talked about my kids' special needs, I have never told people to not play with us but now because of that, it is now so hard to do therapeutic play with my son in the park.

Another problem is that children are attracted to me. While other parents might get on the sand occasionally to play with their kid, I sit on the sand with my son because if I don't, he may likely leave. So I sit with him. I play with him. I talk about how great he was at packing the sand in the mold. I make "birthday cakes" out of sand for him. We sing and pretend to blow out the candles. The good part about this besides helping him be comfortable is that other kids like to see this and start to come by and try to play with me and by default with Spencer too. However, sometimes, too many of them come and they try to talk and play with me as if I was their teacher. At times, Spencer has gotten overwhelmed and has left me and I find myself stuck playing with other people's children. It's a pitiful sight.

This also happens with bubble-blowing in the park. He loves it but too many kids crowd around him and his bubble set and then he just ends up wanting to leave.

No more bubbles for us. I only bring them to a park where I don't know the kids. There is really no way around it. It just attracts too much attention. Other parents probably don't bring them to the park for the same reason I do. Because other people's kids end up using all your bubble stuff. Everyone but your kid. Bubbles will only have to be for private backyards for now.

Additionally,while I will continue to bring the number sand molds to my park, I will only bring a few and I will have be more politefully stingy and keep them very close to me. I am sure that I might seem odd to people but once parents and babysitters see the number molds, hopefully they will understand that my sand molds are not like those that frequently found and easily bought in a store. Hopefully, I won't look like a crazy person but I'm sure I already do.

I am also going to lower my voice and attract less attention when playing with Spencer. This is very hard for me. I am usually loud especially when I am being a Therapy Mom. I clap too loud. I say "Wow" way too often. These things are too attractive for young children. They want to praise too so they come sit next to me and show me their creations. I will have to tone it down. Hopefully that will attract just a couple of kids to play with Spencer and not a mob.

I am also going to tone down the play therapy thing altogether. I am constantly spying for playdates and thinking of ways for Spencer to play interactively with another child. It is somewhat consuming and I should really give it a rest. In the past week, I have spent so much money on toys and even organizing supplies to make it easier for all of us to find different games to play with Spencer.

I guess I am overdoing it partially because I am really afraid. I know it is so unhealthy but I want to avoid medication in the future if it is possible. I can't stand to see him idle in the park and not play functionally while he's there. I don't want him to become too obsessive about order and routine because he is so used to a structured life. I want him to be happy to be with people, young and old, boy or girl, small groups and big groups. People are messy and lovely and give you joy and give you pain. Even though he shies away from it, the times that he hasn't and has done well with other children, I see great happiness in his face. It is worth the effort. I just have to not let it drive me crazy in the process.

Photo: We took the boys to the Staten Island Children's Museum where there is a quiet room for building blocks and playing kitchen. I kept telling Logan to build a city, a skill I know he can do very well but he just wouldn't do it until I sat down and did it with him. Whatever building I did was no match to his once he started to join in on the play. He's got so much potential, I guess I just have to drag him into things to get started. Sometimes I watch parents go to a museum or park with a book in hand and try their hand at reading while they take sneak peeks at their child playing on his own. I wonder if I will ever see this day. For now, I am trying very hard to fill Lucy Miller's prescription of playing with your child as much as he receives therapy from a professional. I understand her point now more than ever.

In case you are interested, here are some cool things that I found for helping my three year old learn to play with others.

1. Doctor Kit
2. Painting
3. Zingo (but played not competitively)
4. Kitchen with foods. It's best to have tables and chairs and utensils too and if all of the foods and utensils are neatly organized, then Spencer becomes more creative. (I'm thinking of creating a menu for him to make a pretend restaurant.)
5. Making instant pudding. Giving two whisks and letting them stir together and bump each other and then hopefully they'll eat it together.
6. Don't Break the Ice (a game) Spencer's therapist, the genius, decided to number the ice blocks and this helped Spencer follow through the game.
7. I Never Forget a Face (matching game, I love anything that helps him look at children's faces intently)
8. Preschool Lotto Game (we just got this and haven't started but it looks good. Very good quality, good graphics. the eeBoo products seem very well made.)
9. Birthday party. I bought some stryofoam blocks to make a birthday cake but I have this feeling I will fail at this miserably. I should have just bought it.
10. Matching Game. This is available pretty much everywhere.
11. Balloon Toss. It took a while but Spencer finally understood that the object of the game was to toss it up in the air and not to let it fall on the ground.
12. Bowling. We joined and now we just pay for shoe rental to pay for the kids' bowling. We found that Spencer loves bowling and that Logan is quite the sore loser. We can work on that through bowling.
13. Construction Set. I found some low cost tool belts and construction vests from Michaels in the sale bin. They also had foam construction hats ($2.99) where you can stick foam stickers on them. I am hoping this might entice Spencer to put on a foam hat to pretend to be a construction worker because he hates hats. They even had the "caution-do not cross" tape which I just had to buy.

If you have any ideas for a three and six year old, please feel free to put them in the comment list or send me an email. I am absolutely obsessed with finding good things for him.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Villains to Vanquish

There is a reason for this two week silence on my blog. The first is simple, I had and actually still have a really horrible cold. It is the kind of cold that makes your abdomen feel like you did 200 sit ups because you are coughing so hard.

The other is not so simple and unfortunately will not go away like a cold. That is, anxiety. It's a dirty word in my house now. If I could, I would take it, stomp on it, chop it up until little tiny pieces and then burn it.

Of all the words that make me and my kids fall into "psychologically different" category, this word or really this aspect of our lives may actually be the most debilitating, more than hyperactivity, impulsivity, autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder and so forth. I am still trying to figure out why but I think that part of it is because I think it is somewhat stealthy in nature. The word itself is accepted in society. In a sense, you are allowed to have some and not do anything about it.

When you say that someone is anxious, you don't necessarily think that person has an actual disorder but "disorder" or not, the level of anxiety in this house stops us from doing what we want to do and being who we want to be.

In my quest of finding calm, I have learned that the medication that treats anxiety can cause nasty side effects. I have also learned that if you don't recognize and deal with it effectively and treat the other things like SPD and ADHD then it may be like collecting water with holes in your buckets. The bucket will hold the water but still you have to move fast because eventually you will lose all the water and have an empty bucket again.

It took me 38 years to figure out that I have been suffering from anxiety since I was little. As I watch my children grow, I see myself in them. I see their irrational fears and remember the ones that I had that weren't the exactly same but equally nonsensical. And while I do know that all children have fears, having big fears or fears that are uncommon along with other behavioral issues makes for a pretty difficult time to do something like say... learning and having fun with other people.

Three weeks ago, I gave up my anti-anxiety medication because it was making me fat and causing major gastrointestinal problems (hint: starts with "c" and ends with "n"). My plan was to just brave it out and do yoga.

While I love yoga, I need to kind of laugh at myself because when I start to get busy and stressed, the last thing I think about doing is yoga. It is so much easier to just pop a pill.

So I had to make adjustments to my plan by using another type of medication and it helps somewhat although it doesn't beat the anti-anxiety medication. However, I don't miss those meds enough to go back on them. I really don't think I will ever start using them again unless I have another huge panic attack like the one that landed me in the ER and sparked this blog into existence.

These past few weeks, I have also noticed that anxiety is not only making me suffer but also bothering my two children in a big big way. For the little one, it is very obvious and it really unnerves me. I feel so bad for him and yet his anxieties or fears or whatever you call them have at times, totally wreak havoc on all of us. It is very stressful.

For example, like many little kids, he wants to ring the doorbell when we go to someone's house but unlike other kids, he will talk about it for five minutes continuously until he gets to ring the bell. Even if we reassure him that he will get to ring the bell, still, he can not stop talking about it until the moment he pushes that button.

Oh, and just to make things easier for me, just throw in his big brother to the mix. Logan who knows that Spencer is obsessed with the doorbell, can not resist the urge to taunt him and so he'll walk in front of Spencer on the way to the door, making it seem like he will ring the bell first thereby further fueling his little brother's anxiety. Sometimes I wonder if the personality mix between the two is healthy or harmful. Is Logan's tendency to "push people's buttons" good for
Spencer because it challenges Spencer's fears head on or does it push those anxieties to dig deeper into his psyche?

When I was little, my brother knew that I was DEATHLY afraid of vampires. We were latch key kids too so sometimes, when my parents weren't home, he would take a blanket and cloak himself with it and pretend to be a vampire. To his delight at each time, without missing a beat, I would totally lose it.

I think Spencer finds it so hard to relax when he's feeling this tense. He does not have a security blanket like Logan does. I think I am his blankie and since he's three now, I think it is fair to say that I won't be able to give that job to a real blankie or stuffed animal. Believe me, I have tried. I'm still trying. I wonder if that is why he is so attached to me. He asks me for a hug about fifty times a day.

I have noticed some obsessive compulsive behaviors in our little guy as well. He closes the door often. Sometimes, he closes drawers if they are open even just slightly. I noticed that at night, he wants his glass of water in the same exact spot near his bed. It's as if there was an imaginary coaster there that only he can see. On the night that I noticed this habit, I decided to secretly take it away and within five minutes after tucking him in and closing the door behind me, I heard sobbing from his room because his water cup was missing.

I explained to him that I was thirsty too so I needed to take the water and that if he was thirsty he could take a sip and I would then take it with me back out of the room. He accepted that but as for the laundry machine, his latest and greatest fear, there is no way of reasoning with him.

I couldn't believe how bad his fear was but starting two months ago, he started crying whenever we went into the laundry room in my apartment building. I know that sometimes things upset him and I do not know why so I just keep talking to him and say that nothing is scary. Recently, during one of my laundry days, I went to him to hold him for a second and I was shocked. He was shaking. You can't see it with your eyes but if you felt him you would know. At this point, what can you say to make him stop the shaking? I still didn't know what exactly about the laundry room was bothering him.

That same day that I noticed the shaking, I found out that it was the big jumbo washer that was causing the trouble because another tenant had turned it on after we left the room. Spencer was so shocked to see it on when we returned to put our clothes in the dryer. He acted like it was a bloody monster. I had never heard him scream like that. I tried to remain calm for him but it pained me to see him so disturbed. I asked myself, "Am I doing the right thing? Am I pushing him too hard? What is the quickest and most gentle way of getting rid of this fear?"

About those fears and getting rid of them.... I had even more questions. Would getting rid of one help you get rid of the others you have in your life concurrently? Theoretically yes, right? I actually have no idea. I am planning on having a larger chat with his therapists to figure things out.

I know that I have done a good amount of reading on things like ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder, but I have barely done any reading on anxiety. I am realizing now that I know so little about it. I always thought that my kids didn't have anxiety to a clinical extent but now I am really questioning that, even with Logan.

My poor Logan. I am trying to think back to when he was three years old, the same age Spencer is now. At three years of age, Logan's issues could no longer be passed off as just being a "real boy" or "really energetic," and so we had him evaluated. We were so surprised to see that his evaluations reported many many delays.

As he grew up, I only suspected ADHD, SPD, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) for him but never anxiety. Logan isn't afraid of anything, I thought. Logan doesn't complain of tummyaches. Logan likes people even though he doesn't quite know how to play nicely with them sometimes.

However, Logan has been scared of any movie having scary-type suspense scenes or characters with scary faces on animated creatures like a shark or a tiger. He was even scared of watching Finding Nemo. I have also noticed that he avoids sitting in the inside of a booth sometimes at a diner or sitting in a place from which he can't easily extricate himself. Also, another clue about possible anxiety of Logan's part are his favorite phrases: "What's next?" and, "What comes after that?"

He does complain of tummyaches but I think I always know what the root of them are and they aren't anxiety related. Basically, Logan's anxiety, if it is indeed anxiety because it is still a question mark right now may not be that huge but big enough to cause poor behavior. Even while he is on stimulant medication, if he is in a non-structured situation (like the weekends at home), he sometimes appears to have not taken any medication at all.

Obviously by now it is clear that anxiety is huge in my house but now the biggest question is... Am I the best person to help them with this? I suppose I could be because I may know or could take a good guess at how that feel. The bad part is that I am anxious too and so at times, I lose the patience and calm that I need to help my children effectively when they start to freak out.

This is what I noticed after I stopped taking my anti-anxiety medication. It is probably just a coincidence that my children's anxieties seemed to have expanded or become more noticeable just as I pass this phase of my life. But I do have some hope because I do believe anxiety is treatable. Now, on top of my list of things to research 'til I drop is anxiety. There is so much to do. It just never stops.

Photo: Spencer has not wanted to go to sleep in his own bed at night for a while. He used to be so good about it too. These days, he is begging to sleep with me in my room. I usually say"no" but I really had to on some of the days when I was very sick because I just couldn't listen to him crying anymore. One day, he went to bed and we didn't hear any whining nor did we have to chase him after he came running out of his room. Kai thought it was strange too and when he went to check on him, he saw that Spencer had crawled into his brother's bed (they share a room) and fell asleep there. Right now, the battle seems to have stopped because we have negotiated that if we leave the door open a little, he would promise to stay in bed and go to sleep. So far so good.