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Monday, June 9, 2014

When Authentic Success Means Falling on the Ground

From Child Development Partners

By Susan Giurleo, Ph.D.
April 24, 2014

One of my values as a parent and child psychologist is the concept of Authentic Success.

In our culture, we pressure everyone to "fit in," and be "typical," or "normal." Yet, in the long run, it's the people who celebrate their gifts and walk to a different beat that are happier and make a positive difference in the world.

Not only is fitting in for quirky kids stressful and overwhelming, over time, it doesn't often lead to their happiness or success.

This week, I want to share a personal story about my son's version of Authentic Success, and offer 4 tips on how you can promote your child's Authentic Success, too.

When Authentic Success Means
Falling on the Ground

Sometimes I think "expert" parenting books do more harm than good. For me, reading the books about "normal" development made me very anxious.

My son was not a typical baby. He was chronically fussy and irritable. He never slept. And that is not an exaggeration. If we got 45 minutes of sleep at a stretch during the first 7 months of his life, we were thrilled. Breastfeeding was hard. He had issues with swallowing.

The doctors couldn't help us. They did some tests, nothing came up. They could see we were completely frazzled and overwhelmed, but he was overall healthy and nothing jumped out as medically wrong.

And those parenting books--taunting me with stories of sleeping babies, blissed out mommies and taking a nap while the baby napped--made me feel inadequate. They made me feel like a failure.

After a few months I stopped reading those books. They brought me down. I stopped comparing notes with friends about their baby's development. Alex just wasn't on the same path.

When Alex started to crawl our world's changed. At 7 months he was a crawling expert. He would zip around the house, the yard, the beach. He HATED being confined. Hated the stroller. Hated naps (Who am I kidding? He never once voluntarily napped!). But he stopped fussing! He laughed and smiled! And he blissfully slept at night!

In retrospect, my baby was (and still is) a gross motor sensory seeker. He's happiest when he's running, jumping, throwing and falling on the ground (still a favorite way to calm his body).

Alex taught me some important lessons in his first year of life. I had to let go of other people's definition of growth, development and success and trust my child and me to know what is right and "normal" for him.

Alex was such a proficient crawler that he didn't walk until he was almost 15 months old. By the book, this is a later than average walker. By this point in his life, I had stopped measuring his growth by external yardsticks. I had learned to celebrate his authentic success.

Authentic Success is how we track and celebrate our child's unique path to mastery. Looking back, Alex didn't sleep because being a baby who couldn't move was so uncomfortable he couldn't stand being in his own skin. As soon as he could move, he was the happiest kid in town.

And now, we know that sitting still for hours, taking long car rides, expecting a "quiet body" are challenges for him. At 10, he can do it. He can sit still, he can take a car ride, he can manage his body. But we also need to give him space to let of steam, run as fast as he can, fall on the ground as much as he needs to, when the time and place is right.

Authentic success for Alex is not piano lessons. It's baseball and soccer played in the same season, so every day of the week has a practice or game or workout. He's happier, more focused, school work is improved.

Sure, for us as parents it's work. But it's easier to get him to the fields than it is to hold him accountable to quiet activities that make him squirm, argue and sulk around the house.
We've waved the white flag of surrender on his choosing to sit down to draw, play with Legos or do crafts. When we insist he must quietly entertain himself he'll either read or...play his digital drum kit (of course, right?).

Authentic Success for Alex looks different than it looked for me or my husband. And the truth is, I'm not sure what it all means for him as an adult. Which is fine. He's surprised us all along. He always manages just fine without our worrying about how his experience doesn't necessarily match what the books say he "should" do.

Four Steps to Support Authentic Success
for Your Child

Your child is a success. Maybe it doesn't look like other kids' success. Maybe it isn't what the books define as "typical." So what? Here are 4 ways to uncover your child's successes:

1.) Clearly identify what they do very well. For example, some kids with autism are masters at completing puzzles. My clients blow me away with their phenomenal "puzzling" skills. I'm horrible at puzzles, so I am truly impressed.

I share my amazement at their awesome visual perceptual skills. This opens up a wonderful conversation where we share what we are good at and what is harder. I talk about my love of reading and writing, but my struggles with perception. We all ultimately agree that our brains together would be the "perfect" brain, but that's just silly and we laugh :).

2.) Honor and acknowledge strengths and weaknesses. Your kids are smart. They know when they aren't so good at something. Point out their strengths in relationship to their weaknesses and acknowledge that EVERYONE has such talents and weak areas.

For example, Alex straight up tells me, "Mom, I'm not so good at art."

My response: "Yep. It's ok. You are great at baseball and some kids aren't. Just do your best at art. We don't expect you to freehand sketch a horse."

There is no shame in being a human being with unique talents and challenges. Acceptance of our children is the first step in showing them they can empower themselves to do great things with their skills.

3.) Give your child opportunities to improve their skills in the areas they enjoy and at which they excel. One of the very odd things we do to quirky kids, is focus most of their time remediating their weaknesses, rather than strengthen their gifts. When you look at this process from a life-skill perspective, it's backwards. Sure, we all need to learn how to read, write, do math. But do we all need to write cursive? Do calculus? Make forced eye contact? No, we don't. 

What leads to authentic success is being great at something you enjoy. And the only way to get from innate skill to great is to learn more and practice. If your child loves art, explore art classes. If your child wipes you off the chess board, have him study with a master. And if your child would rather swing a golf club at 3 years old than play with blocks, get him on the golf course .

4.) Stop comparing. Comparison is an exercise designed to set you up for anxiety and stress. I know our kids are always being compared on the bell curve in school. It doesn't matter if s/he is in the top 25%, bottom 25% or somewhere in the middle, they will not make their living as an adult introducing themselves as, "The guy who wasn't as good at 5 paragraph essays as the rest of my class."

Parenting a quirky kid becomes more joyful when we relieve ourselves of the pressure to compare, compete and commiserate. Your kid marches to a different drum. And while there are real stressors and struggles involved at times, we can choose to celebrate their Authentic Success. We all can to celebrate their powerful strengths and to enjoy life on our own terms.


Susan Giurleo, Ph.D. is the founder of Child Development Partners, LLC, a private psychological practice dedicated to the treatment and support of children/adolescents diagnosed with ADHD, Autism and other Executive Functioning disorders, and their families. She was recently joined by Allison Andrews, Psy.D. They have offices in Westford and Lexington.

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