Intergenerational Communcation

last night, my 5-day-old daughter had a panic attack.  I wonder how many times I’ve seen infants have panic attacks
(especially when I was working in daycare) and never realized what it was.  we just have this acceptance of “oh, babies cry!” without questioning the drive or emotion behind it.  she went from what appeared to be fairly calm (which I’m thinking now was actually attempting to shut things out) to a screaming shaking franticness, where she was acting like she wanted to nurse, but was too panicked to latch on, in a manner of minutes.

once we realized what was going on, it was something we could deal with.  I’ve had panic attacks since I was 11, and I’ve realized the best way to deal with them is just lowering the stimulation level as much as I can.  so we did the same for her.

it made me think further though, about something that has already been on my mind.  communication between grown-ups and children.

this thought process had been stimulated by two things.

one was an article in Parenting magazine (a magazine I normally despise, but peruse occassionally, and sometimes has random gems) about ‘Mommy Guilt’, which mentioned the concept of using a ‘safeword’ with kids, to let them know that you’re at the edge of your rope, and about to lose your temper.  or, alternately, if your kids catch you losing your temper, and they feel frightened or uncomfortable, they can use the safeword to remind you to… well, check yourself before you wreck yourself.

it was a fascinating concept to me, because you rarely hear people talking about how to empower children during conversations.  the majority of articles written about communication with children seem to be about… well, manipulation.  how to get your kids to do what you want them to do without them realizing it.  the idea of giving a child a tool so that they can make a choice about the emotional scaling of a conversation or situation is brilliant, especially coming from a magazine which is usually writing about how to get your kids to do what you want them to do without realizing it.

the second thing which got me thinking along the lines of communication with children is the movie Martian Child, with John Cuzack and a kid I strongly suspect is The Littlest Culkin.  there’s a couple scenes in here that are amazing grown-up/kid communication (and a few that absolutely fail on that point), but the one that really jumped out at me is where the kid is doing a series of repetitive movements (that seem mostly based on pinky fingers), and gets John Cuzack to join him, watching his movements and mimicking them, even though they don’t necessarily make sense to him.  afterwards, the kid looks up at him, grins, and says “nice talk”.

most often, when seeking “quality conversation” or “nice talks” with our kids, we are trying to have adult conversations.  we may not be asking them adult questions, but we’re trying to fit them in adult formats.  kids don’t talk the way grown-ups do.  their conversations are much more faceted, and move beyond the shallow, “how was school?” or “how was work?” where adults attempt to describe their reality.

kids worlds are not dominated by reality, so neither are their conversations.  kids converse through allegory, through fantasy, through play, through art, through tickling, through cooking.  and if you let them lead the conversations (which may or may not fit in your description of ‘conversation’), when they need to talk with you, they will come to you.

when Israel first started art therapy, I admit that I thought that they were going to be doing alot of talking.  asking about his emotional standing, his struggles at home and at school… but he was leading the conversation.  and if the conversation was “making a cake out of dried beans, paint and blue glitter”, so be it.  the conversations that children seem to get the most absorbed in are the ones they have with other kids, deep within the realms of fantasy.  they will talk at great length, about the things that frighten them, the things that empower them, what’s most important to them, who they look up to, all the things that parents try to pump them for in “nice talks”.

when we force kids to participate in parent-led conversation, we can often squeeze out the information that we’re seeking, frequently with our kid waiting patiently, ready to run off on their next adventure, which, if we knew how to listen, would tell us more than the strained “so, how was school?”  that we drug out during the dinner process.  at the end of our conversation, we release them, feeling proud for knowing where our kids are coming from, and having such positive, teaching and affirming talks together.  we love to dig for any kind of life frustration, so that we can offer them advice, and dig for any part of their character we can help make more well-rounded.  for our sake, they tolerate this pretty well, for a period of time.

eventually, they end up tired of doing their obligatory communication, and we end up with monosyllabic responses.  “Good.”  “Fine.”  “Yeah.”  “‘Guess so.”  which leaves us frustrated and wondering, “why don’t my kids want to talk to me?”  well, they tried to.  our conversational gaps are just too large.  we’re having talks that we lead, for our benefit.

when Israel comes home from his dad’s house, or from school, I’ve missed him.  often I start pumping him for information right off the bat.  “how was school today?”  “what did you learn?”  “what’s your favorite class?”  “did you have any problems with the other kids?”  the responses are often a “I don’t know”, with his eyes not connecting, one tentative buttcheek already sneaking off the couch as he inches away towards play.

while I’m digging for reality, for him that was just the obligatory part of the day.  he’s already been there, and doesn’t want to relive it, now that he can get on to the business of being a kid.  however, if I ask about the meaningful part of the day, “what did you play at recess?” the stories come pouring out.  stories about battles with knights and aliens and how he was a kitten with super-powers and a Ben-10 Omnitrix that could transform into any other creature.  cartoons, video games, stories, and his own imagination brew up powerful fantasies, in which he can be strong and powerful and decisive in a world that doesn’t hold him a back or limit him.  and my brain fogs over.  frustrated that he won’t talk to me about anything “real”.

when we learn to participate in child-led conversation, we learn to really listen to their stories and fantasies.  we can learn what it is that drives them, what’s important to them, and appreciate their imaginations and creativity.  our children feel fulfilled, because we have an interest in them, in the things that really matter to them, and not just the random factoids that surround them, and contribute so little to their actual experiences of their realities.  we accept them.  our instincts may be to still try and fit in some adult conversation, but watch how quickly your child shuts down when mid-lego or mid-teaparty you try to bust out some “so, how’s school?” or try to sneak a moral into battling pirates.

instead, we have to break out of our grown-up programming.  once we have the ability to get down, be in the moment, and lose our mindless drive to ‘accomplish’, we’ll realize that playdough, pirates, dress-up and fantasy are communicating with our kids.

the question may still remain: what in the world does this have to do with my daughters newborn anxiety?

we do the same thing with infants as we do with children.  there is this tiny little being who through their very existance recreates your universe and we are desperate for a connection with them, for acknowledgement.  very few people seem to think of the emotional needs of a newborn.

it is a transitory time.  coming from a realm where everything is muted, and gentle, the womb is very much a sensory deprivation tank, which they need, for their senses are only newly acquired.  imagine experiencing going from complete black and silence, with no feeling whatsoever, to a stimulating sensory world.  it would be virtually intolerable.  therefor, the womb functions to allow slight stimulation, as their senses develop in utero.  once they can hear, they hear muted sounds.  once they can see, they can see muted light.  once they can taste, there are diluted flavors (did you know amniotic fluid takes on the flavor of what the mother eats?  interesting fact.).  though they can feel physical sensation, they are suspended in liquid, with no direct contact to their skin, though as they grow larger they can kick and feel the uterine wall around them, and those who choose to interact with them from the outside.

then when they come out, we should let them slowly adjust from this soft, silent world, to the stimulation of lights and sounds and touch, and interaction.

…but with our need for interaction and connection, it’s easy to forget.  it’s easy to say “oh, babies just cry sometimes.”

this is why I think my 5 day old daughter had a panic attack.  she was sleeping.  Ethan got home, and my tits hurt, since she hadn’t nursed for hours.  I decided to wake her up to nurse her and change her diaper.  both of us were excited to interact with her, since she’d been sleeping, and Ethan hadn’t really seen her all day.  we pressed in, as I was changing her, talking to her and touching her face and body, laughing over her expressions and movements.  Ethan turned her, so he could see her eyes, and within moments she had a full-on baby meltdown.

I held her over my heart and rocked her until she was calm enough to latch on.  and even then she just lay in my arms, her eyes tightly closed, breathing with rapid panic breaths.  and that was when I recognized what was happening.  she’d been trying to communicate with us, trying to tell us she’d had enough, that she couldn’t deal with any more.  but we were desperate for interaction,  and didn’t notice her cues.  I went and googled “infant overstimulation signs” today, and she was using all of them.  flailing arms, looking away, rapid breathing.

when babies are born they get passed around like hot potatoes.  everyone wants a piece.  everyone wants to get to hold them, squeal at them, play with their toes and fingers.  we think about what we want.  what we need.  we don’t think of their precarious position, or their emotional needs.

even with infants, our communication should be lead by them.  when they look at us, when they make eye contact, we should respond, but we cannot force our children to communicate on our terms.  they are their own creatures, and their own entities, with their own personalities.  we must, in all stages of their lives, let them be themselves, and communicate in their own ways, according to their needs.

-Domestic Anarchist

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