Comfort Zones: Ever Widening Them (updated)

This is one of May's B-O-B posts.

Have you ever noticed that you function better when you feel comfortable and confident in your surroundings and that when you are unsure of yourself, you are more likely to stumble? The same is true for our kids. In their element, where they are sure of all the important variables and comfortable expressing themselves, they make better eye contact, engage more willingly in communication, show attachment, and function at their best. Remove them from their comfort zones and we have vastly different children. We have children who may have been singing at the top of their lungs only an hour before now displaying selective mutism when we take them somewhere new, or who were happy and cheerful now pensive and moving towards serious meltdown.

Part of helping my three children function better in the world is something we call widening their comfort zones, areas in which they feel safe and comfortable because they know they have the tools to navigate that particular situation. The reality, although it might not be obvious, is that part of helping myself deal with what can be crippling anxiety is that I spend a fair amount of time working to widen my own comfort zones. The first forays into new settings can be extremely uncomfortable for me (to put it mildly), and I am fairly sure that some of the triggers for my migraines is the stress involved in widening the comfort zone or in continuing to force myself to move in places that have not yet become my comfort zone.

My first few years of teaching involved stopping along the drive to vomit, each and every time I had to go teach. Even all these years later I have a gag reflex some days that makes getting out the door difficult, and teaching is definitely my comfort zone now. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and neural pathways set in place have a tendency to fire whether we want them to or not. Our bodies remember what our minds have gotten over already. And that's a lovely battle to wage: having a calm mind but a raging body, time after inexplicable time.

Of all the things I've passed on to my children, this set of hurdles is one I dearly want to help them avoid, and so the task of widening their comfort zones before their neural pathways are set on a path of making them bodily ill when forced outside the comfort zone takes on a whole new level of urgency for me, although not at the expense of going to the other extreme. We work at widening our comfort zones together, in tandem. Hey, I didn't get called candy-ass for nothing (thanks, Dad--actually, I was a nervous child, and it did fit, even if it didn't help). 

Distinctly outside her comfort zone.

I find situations where I have to go to something where I know no one acutely unpleasant. So, too, do my kids. Birthday parties are one of those areas for me, so when I at least know one of the parents there, it makes the whole thing so much better. Teaching our children that if they can find one thing familiar in a new situation, they may feel more comfortable is a good trick to extending the comfort zone.

A few weeks ago, we attended Rosie's best friend's birthday party. Rosie managed a new place (the Y, and a new experience, the public pool with the heat and the noise) because she had tethers: she desperately wanted to be with her friend, she was extremely comfortable with the friends' parents (she'd had her first sleepover ever with them that previous evening and was perfectly at home with them), and I was there. The pool was an obstacle. She managed to get in for a short time, and then she managed to sit there and watch her friend for a little longer, but the meltdown was building. After about ten minutes, it became necessary to compromise: she changed back to clothes and we stood there, her tucked into my side, while we watched the other kids swim and we chatted with the friend's mom. The friend's mom made the experience a good one for both Rosie and me; we didn't feel awkward or uncomfortable: having a friendly face around makes a world of difference. We managed to get past the sensory issues (hers and mine) and stay for the whole party, where Rosie, instead of being off and separate as she usually is at these things, was right up in the middle of it once it moved past the pool part.

We succeeded in widening both of our comfort zones, although I'm totally with her on the pool experience.  

Lil's state project; she'll have to present it this week.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that my middle child, Lily, has issues presenting in front of the classroom. It's a normal anxiety-inducing experience for all children (and a good many adults). What differs is the intensity of the reaction to being asked to. She shuts down and won't budge. Yeah, she probably gets this from me, as well. Heck, all three of my kids outshine me when it comes to what I could or would do in terms of public performances when I was their age, and I'm "normal"! 

So, the last experience, giving a book report, was a spectacular no-go after days of prompting and reinforcing by the teacher. Not a happy time, let me tell you, especially since I didn't know that the tug-of-war was going on to get her to do it; Lil wasn't talking about it and the teacher wasn't communicating there was an issue. This time around, Lily and I are being proactive. Since we know she can lock up when forced to do something on demand, we're practicing. She did it for her grandparents, all mumbly and face averted, but she did it. She did it for her sister in the car, and although her poster is already at school, we'll continue to practice because she's being (unfairly, I think) graded on posture, eye contact, audibility in her presentation. We'll be working on those things, and I'm not asking for different grading criteria, either. She's got to navigate this world, and the sooner we work on the skills she needs, the better off she will be. She's got a brand new barbie doll waiting for her successful completion, so she's got something nice waiting for her on the other side of the experience to strengthen the likelihood she'll be successful.

The boy peels a boiled egg for potato salad he's making.

Of all my children, Bobby's comfort zones are the most narrow and the discrepancy between functionality inside and outside the comfort zone the most disparate. Taking him outside his comfort zone is emotionally painful for both of us. I spent years trying to avoid it (but thankfully managing to push past that some--not enough, but some). With my own experiences the last five or six years of intentionally fighting back against my own issues with new places and people, I'm getting stronger and more determined to make the entire damn world not only my comfort zone, but my kids' comfort zones, as well. 

After last summer's horrible stories dealing with autistic young men my son's age being detained by police for looking odd or reacting oddly, I realized, especially after watching him at a store, when we'd sent him to get a cart and bring it back to us, with his eyes darting back and forth and his subvocalizing as he worked to successfully complete this task, we had to fix this. We had to widen his comfort zone so that he could navigate a store without looking suspicious or odd. We had to make him feel capable of doing this task. Since he and I shop together, it was a simple, though scary, thing to implement, and after a year of working on it, he's totally within his comfort zone; he has a list, his own cart, he checks out and goes and loads up the groceries in the car and comes back and finds me. He's not constantly darting his eyes or engaging in a steady stream of monologue. And he feels so good about what he's learned to do, how far he's come, that the successes continue to build on themselves. The newfound confidence in his ability to master new skills means he's willing and self-motivated to try new things.

He now cooks half the family meals; he pours over the recipe books, painstakingly writes out the ingredients he needs, and he finds them in the store that week. Yes, we still have pitfalls, like the time he put the keep-refrigerated tortellini in the cabinet because pasta goes in the cabinet (and I narrowly discovered that he was going to cook tortellini that had spent five days in the cabinet instead of the fridge), or like this week when he pulled a dirty knife from the sink to use to slice something he was cooking (holy crap the things you don't realize you need to cover). But instead of letting these missteps paralyze either of us, it galvanizes us, makes us look at just how deeply do all these things need to be broken down into the constituent parts. It feels a bit like Annie Sullivan with Helen Keller at times, but, by gosh, it's nothing short of phenomenal progress for a kid whose future was written off by psychiatrists when he was five.

Widening our world, our children's worlds, is hard, painful work. Sometimes, it's easier to not, but the price we pay for that inaction is heavy. Yes, breaks to regroup and refresh ourselves are absolutely vital, but when we think it'd be easier if we just go ahead and do something for our child rather than teach them how to do it and wait out the inevitable mistakes and messes, we rob them of widening their comfort zones, of helping them get a steady stream of successes under their belts. We want to spare them the failures, keep them protected from the frustration, but they need those mistakes, they need to learn to persevere, to overcome so that they know they CAN overcome. They need to know their limits and how to get around them.

The kindest thing we can do for our children is often the hardest thing of all to do: to ask them to try and then to let them fail. By letting them experience the failure along with the realization that the world didn't end, we prime them to better self-regulate their emotions, and in doing so, we widen their comfort zones.

Update: May 15, 2011:

Lily earned a 97 for her presentation and a 100 on her poster. Go Lily!

Lily bowling.

Bobby attended two busy events with me for the college: Ranch Day and the Certificate Ceremony. He sat by himself in a very crowded room with hundreds of people while my Dad and I walked in with th faculty and sat on the other side of the room. He snapped photos, he said hello to people and he handled himself with aplomb. Go Bobby!

at Ranch Day

Rosie attended a birthday party last week that involved bowling, something she was scared to do. She had a blast and bowled three games. Go Rosie!

bowling with confidence

originally posted 4.30.11


kathleen said...

Oh absolutely..sometimes I feel I am pushing them forward and at the same time hanging on the their shirt..in some desperate need to..to..I don't know. But-I realize that I have to work on my own issues... So, we have gone to dance class this year..and my girls haven't a clue how hard it is for me. For which I am very pleased about..All my kids model me-they look to me to teach them to navigate..So I owe it to them to work through my own stuff. At the same time-not let them know the extent of it..:)
Oh I know with the knife in the sink! And the pasta in the cabinet. There are so many little bits that we take for granted..that we think everyone "just knows"..the devil is in the details sometimes..:) Great post..

farmwifetwo said...

Mine have and still do go everywhere. EVERYWHERE with us... except for adult only meals at adult only restaurants of course... Hey!! Still need Mom and Dad kidless time. It's one of the reason's they are so social. Oh, they don't get it right half the time.... although the eldest does very well... but they are usually willing to try new things.

We learned quickly to stick with the KISS system. Need groceries... in, out, done. Need to stop at more than 2 places, the rest can wait until tomorrow. Therefore having a positive outcome in many places instead of cramming it into one outing and having difficulty.

Now we can tour the mall, stop and go through our list... but when you've learned to adapt in all these places when you are small... it's much easier to do it now when you are older.

Ari said...

Your son does better in grocery stores than I do, seems like hugely better. My mother didn't do anything to expand my comfort zones, that I know of. I was mostly left alone. Probably with good reason, I'd scream endlessly and hit things if I wasn't left alone (including myself, other people).

It isn't that I am afraid of grocery stores (or unfamiliar places), though that's everyone else's interpretation of it. It is painful, all the squeaky wheeled grocery carts, the music, the people talking but behind another row of shelves and so invisible to me, the irritating habit of manufacturers to change the packaging colours and shapes, the insurmountable obstacles of distractions and noise and light and confusion, and of course all the people who try to talk to me and don't realize I can't speak and generally can't hear them. I live in a very friendly place, people talk to each other a lot, and I have no way to respond.

I still can only go to one specific grocery store by myself, any other is impossible. I try, and up to 4 hours later come back out in either meltdown or shutdown and with nothing. I thought that eventually I'd get better at it. But after 22 years of grocery shopping, I haven't. I suspect this may be one of those things that will never get better, that it's just too late for. Luckily, I live with a friend who has been exceptionally understanding.

Anyway, my point is that if I had had a parent who didn't give in to me as much, a parent like you, I suspect I'd be a lot more functional. I don't envy parents their difficult tasks, I could not do it. I can't do it for myself, it would be even more difficult to do it for a child. I know my mother did the best she could, and just wasn't able to endure my screaming.

sharon said...

Yes. I love the comment about it being hard now, but choosing not to leads to a heavy price to pay down the road. That philosophy covers so many parenting issues with all children, but I think is particularly poignant for our ASD kids.

KWombles said...


Aww, no mileage off of pointing out the sacrifice and how hard you're working on your own issues? Hardly seems fair! :-) hee, okay, I know, we can't do that. I fervently hope my girlies never ever hear of a dance class, though.

farmwifetwo, yup, take them everywhere, be prepared to limit the places visited in one day, and train them to work around issues. Heck, I have an internal limit of three places when I'm shopping, and that's when I'm alone, and it's usually two more places than I wanted to go.


Thanks for the comment. I suspect that Bobby found stores overstimulating when he was younger; we had so many horrible experiences out, but we learned when to leave the store and when to push a little more. And honestly, we don't go when it's busy because we've learned that none of us do well when there are a lot of people there.

I hope that you'll be able to find ways to work around so that you'll be able to successfully shop yourself, but it sounds like you've hit upon a way to get what you need with your roommate taking those tasks (my husband does those errands I can't stand, so I appreciate it when I don't have to push constantly against my comfort zones).


Thanks. Yes, I think if we could, when we are in those moments where meltdowns are happening or when we're trying to prevent them from happening, if we'd always project out and consider the long term consequences to what we do next.

melbo said...

Oh yes, I just mentioned something the other day about being very specific with instructions. It is so true that we assume or take for granted some things and then don't realise we need to spell them out to our kids. Actually, the same could be said of any kid, even the neurotypical ones. =)

You mentioned Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan: I loved reading about Helen Keller when I was a kid. It amazed me all over again when I began reading about autism how much Helen's struggles to communicate and Annie's genius at breaking through to her had in common with the experiences of those on the spectrum.

Helen as a child had behavioural difficulties that almost led to her being institutionalised - the assumption being that the illness that rendered her blind and deaf had also robbed her of her mental capabilities. How wrong they were. It is lucky Helen's parents did not give up on her and even luckier still that Miss Sullivan with her native intelligence was the one chosen to reach her. They could scarcely have done better.

Enough off topic rambling. Great post as usual from you.

Mom said...

I think we all have our comfort zones. My autistic son is just WAY more uncomfortable in new situations that I am. I have several daughters who are incredibly shy. My 14-year-old cries when I send her to someone's door even if it is to deliver a birthday invitation! My 5-year-old can answer the phone and talk for 5 minutes to anyone, but if she meets them in person, it's like she has no voice. Raising kids is such a puzzle...in some ways they are so alike and yet when you try to fit their quirks together, the picture doesn't come out right.

K- floortime lite mama said...

Adore this post
Especially since it's so easy to not worry about widening their comfort zones

KWombles said...

Thanks, Melbo (sorry for the delay in responding back).


Thanks for commenting. :) People in general are fascinating puzzles and our kids the most fascinating of all. How they can be so very different from each other, how they can do so well at some things and not so well at others. Keeps us on our toes.


Yes, when we are in the trenches, thinking of actively expanding those comfort zones is often the last thing on our minds.