Shutdowns and Pushing Boulders

Shutdowns and Pushing Boulders

Following a recent talk, I was asked about suggestions of more things to do when our children (particularly our teens) shut down. I’ve been mulling this over.

Here’s a thought: When our children shut down on listening/trying/showing up, what if we take it as a sign to quit trying, to quit pushing on them — for right now?

This isn’t about letting them off the hook or condoning poor behaviors or attitudes (which can happen when any of us shut down!) or anything like that. It’s about stopping pushing the current boulder up a hill. If they are shutting down, something isn’t working. And trying to make them open up or figure it out or whatever by continuing to use the same method isn’t likely to result in a different outcome. It might just make things worse.

Some tougher days in gymnastics come to mind, when I just couldn’t get whatever the skill I was working on that day quite right. Cue internal shut down. I’d be frustrated, worried, and getting tired. Though maybe it didn’t seem so on the outside, I truly was trying to try — and it wasn’t working. I didn’t know what to do; I wanted to give up. Several coaches over the years would go the boulder uphill route: “I’m going to say the same thing over and over in increasing tones until she hears me and gets it right!”.

Perhaps it’s no surprise: I can’t recall a time this ever ended well. Instead, it’d play out one of two ways: 1) I’d be left at the event working on the skill and getting nowhere until they finally said to move to the next event — and then I’d move to the next event physically and mentally wiped out, struggle there for some time, and then end the day sore, more depressed, and stressing about the next practice (which would usually end poorly as well and sometimes result in an injury), or 2) I’d try and try for some time until the coach kicked me out of practice. While I dreaded being yelled at and worried about what the coach would think of me as a person if they kicked me out (because clearly I failing if that happened), I preferred getting kicked out — there was less wear and tear on my body.

What actually helped on the tough gymnastics days? When the coach would identify on the earlier end that things weren’t going so well, and then either have me switch to a different skill, different event, more basic version of that skill, or a different coach. Bonus points when there was little show of exasperation on their part — they’d just tell me to switch. And then once I had my bearings back, the rest of practice would generally go better (or at least not end in a complete meltdown on either end), and sometimes I’d even be able to come back to the skill I was struggling with and make some progress. (And if not, I wasn’t quite as stressed about trying it again the next day.)

As an adult now myself, it’s interesting to see an ingrained setting of “must keep pushing boulder” — I kind of think we’ve all got some of this. However, pushing the boulder uphill is tiring and rarely ends well. What if we quit doing it (at least as much)? I bet this would make a difference in shutdown situations.

I get this is easier said than done. I have regular boulder moments with my younger kids and homework. What I continue to be reminded of: I can’t “make” them do it. Heck, I can’t make them or anyone else doing anything. The only person I have control over is myself: where I’m focusing my thoughts and attention and how I’m responding.

When our children shut down: What if we take a moment to see where we ourselves are shutting down — by yelling, insisting, cajoling, or otherwise trying to “make” something happen? Or maybe we’re shutting down via grabbing our phones or deciding our kid or the situation is a lost cause. What if rather than trying to get our kids to quit shutting down, we focus on turning ourselves back on first?

Maybe we walk away. Maybe we go for a walk. Maybe we do five jumping jacks or remind ourselves of a note to self (life is messy!!). Maybe we walk into the next room and say to ourselves (perhaps through gritted teeth): “I’m going to remind myself of three things I appreciate (or three things I appreciate about my kid)”.

Then when we’re feeling less like pulling out our hair and can speak without immediately snapping or being sarcastic (and maybe today is not that day — and that’s okay), then we try to re-engage our child on the situation in question. It certainly won’t go less well than if we’d kept pushing the boulder uphill. We may even find that the situation kind of works itself out — without having to try so hard.

If we want our kids to shut down less and reboot faster, it’d probably help if we were being the model and doing it ourselves.

I figure I don’t have much to lose by trying.

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