Friday, August 24, 2012

The Power of Validation

Yesterday, my oldest (N) and I found ourselves in one of our classic quandaries.  N is a huge fan of Minecraft which is a computer game involving world building that can be played in the creative mode (where you don't have to worry about getting killed) or survival mode.  (For those familiar with Minecraft, I apologize for my very simplistic description of a very detailed, multi-faceted game.)  Lately, we've been playing in multiplayer mode.  I say "we" because I too have taken the plunge in order to understand my son and to have a great way to connect with him.  His younger brothers (who are 5) are playing with him as well.
Needless to say for those who are familiar with Aspergers (or autism in general), none of us play it adequately for N.  (I'm actually using our time on Minecraft as a way to work on his flexibility and social skills since he's more likely to learn these skills while doing something he loves.)

The quandary that I alluded to earlier began when N was playing my youngest twin (D).  N was playing a new 'mod' that was intended to be played in survival mode and had several, specific challenges to complete.  D wasn't interested in playing in survival mode because he can't play well enough not to die.  Since both boys are on the spectrum, their rigidity tends to lead to explosive episodes of aggression when they disagree.  Of course, this no doubt happens with typical children.  With spectrum children, though, the disagreements that lead to aggression can be about seemingly benign, trivial issues, and, even on those conflicts which are understandable, once they have set their minds a certain way, there is no clear way to reason with them.  The subsequent aggression is often way out of proportion to the importance of the issue (from an NT's perspective).

Inevitably, N changed D to survival mode remotely and then killed his brother's Minecraft character.  This, of course, led to aggression and resulted in N going downstairs to cool off.  N was beginning to escalate to a meltdown and so I went downstairs to help.  In situations like this, N is overcome with emotion to the point that he simply is out of control.  I often have to be careful approaching him during this time because he has hit me during these fits.  From a few feet away, I suggested he take some deep breaths and then I calmly tried to describe the situation - that he wanted survival mode but D did not and that it was OK if they played in different modes.  End of discussion, right?  Of course, that didn't work!  It was worth a try but then I had to pull back and listen.   As he thrashed around, he yelled the same thing over and over again:  "Sky Block" (the mod he was in) was SUPPOSED to be in survival mode!"   I stopped trying to fight him on that point because, like it or not, N saw it as a concrete, black and white issue and he wasn't going to see any gray.  I knew that if I continued to push that point, he'd only escalate further.

Instead, I had to be flexible in my thinking.  I had to validate my son's feelings because, whether I saw it a different way than him, his feelings were legitimate.  I gave him a moment and then told him that I understood that it was frustrating for him because he wanted to play Minecraft the way it was supposed to be played.  I understood that he was very angry that his brother refused to play the "right" way.  My saying this calmed him somewhat and took the edge off his anger.  I then talked about how we all have to learn how to do things and that some learn faster than others.  I gave the example of riding a bike and how training wheels help a rider learn to ride.  I told him that creative mode was like training wheels for a learning bike rider and that D needed his training wheels when he played.  Not giving him his training wheels (creative mode) was kind of cruel since he wouldn't be able to ride (i.e., play the game).  I saw a light in my son's eyes and could see that he got it.  He switched back immediately (as he often does) to the sweet boy I know and he hugged me.  My showing him that I understood what he was feeling and telling him that his feelings were legitimate made him feel safe and secure which then led to his being more flexible in his response to D.  They continued to play with D in creative mode and they didn't fight about that issue for the rest of their time playing.

I think everyone deserves the right to have their feelings validated.  When we refuse to validate another's feelings and experiences, we may miss an opportunity to connect with them, to fully understand their situation as well as help in times of struggle.  When I think of pivotal times that my feelings have been validated after years of being ignored and/or disputed, I can still feel that sense of release that comes with it.  I think of when my first, second and third children were diagnosed and, more recently, when I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.  When professionals were poo pooing my concerns about my children, it was harmful to my family because our struggles were being belittled and unsupported.  When my aches and pains were written off as being in my head or insignificant, I continued to harm myself unintentionally because I didn't understand that my hypermobility was making me more injury prone because I continued doing things as if nothing was wrong with me.  Even if we as humans disagree with one another, we should validate each other's feelings and perceptions out of a sense of humility and respect for their dignity.  When we validate another, we may also discover a truth unseen before and may be able bridge a previously invisible gap or we may be able to help another find answers to their concerns.

After my recent diagnosis I now look back on my life with a much better understanding.  I can't help but feel resentment toward those who didn't listen to my concerns, but, more importantly, I recall my own self doubt that resulted injury after injury.  Instead of malformed collagen, I thought maybe there was something wrong with me as a person.  I realize now that I need to continue to remind myself that I need to fight for what I believe despite those who disagree.  We mustn't depend on being validated to maintain our resolve which might sound like a contradiction to what I have said above but, with our children and our loved ones, we need to recognize the power validation has and to dispense it freely.  If a child is surrounded by those who dispute their feelings, their self esteem is at risk and they may succumb to self doubt and may not flourish as well as they would if we recognize the legitimacy of their feelings, experiences and perceptions of the world.  If, however, we validate their feelings and experiences at an early age, they will learn from us that their feelings are legitimate and, hopefully, will take that confidence with them to fight for what they believe in.   Of course, everyone experiences self doubt but maybe our children can be armed with less.  When I think of validating others, I find myself reflecting on the Sanskrit word (and gesture), namaste, which can translate as, "I recognize the divine in you."  I think when we validate others, we put that into practice.


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