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Getting Rid of Distorted Fears, Part Two: Ten Steps to Conquering a Fear

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When we conquer a distorted fear, we also gain a new sense of confidence.

Step 1. We talk about the fear when the child is not frightened.

Once in the fear mode, we don’t process information very well.  That’s why we only talk about the fear whenever our child is feeling safe and unthreatened.

Step 2. We use humor to underscore there’s no real danger.

Suppose a child is afraid to walk upstairs alone. In such case, we might say:  Every time family members walk upstairs, they get beamed up into outer space, right? No? Well, then every time family members walk upstairs, they go bald, right? No? Then what happens if you walk up the stairs alone?

Step 3. We put a positive spin on whatever the child fears.

For example, a child who is deathly afraid of skeletons now learns that her skeleton actually protects her jello-like brain from getting hurt! Who knew?

Step 4.  Our child creates positive intention statements, expressing what he’ll do (differently) when faced with the fear.

Such statements are written and posted around the house, as well as said aloud. Some examples of positive intention statements are:

  • I can hold my mom’s hand in the elevator and then ride it without screaming.
  • I can stand next to a dog without crying.
  • I can stay in my own bed without yelling for my mom.

Note that positive intention statements are not one-size-fits-all, such as, “I’m not afraid of (fill in the blank).”  Rather, they specifically spell out what the child will do differently (than prior times) when now facing the fear.

Step 5. We have dress rehearsals before implementing a new plan of action.

Suppose a child is afraid to go to sleep at night if the closet door is shut.  In such case, the parents and child create the same bedtime scenario—but during the daytime—to practice what the child will now do differently at night.

So in broad daylight, the parent initially assumes the role of the child, and the child just watches “the show.”  For example, one parent puts the child (the other parent) to bed and then shuts the closet door. The parent assuming the child role models how he’s cool with that . . . no yelling, no tears, nada.

Then it is the child’s turn.

Note that dress rehearsals may also include some fantasy. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, a sibling can be the “dog” during the dress rehearsal. That way, the brain has chances to become familiar with what it’s going to do . . . but without anything that actually triggers the fear.

Step 6. We include something in our new plan that physically helps with anxiety.

We may give our child something, such as a squishy ball to squeeze, when first overcoming/facing a fear.

Step 7. We get rid of the distorted fear in baby steps.

Suppose a child is afraid to ride in elevators. After rehearsing riding in an imaginary elevator at home, our first trip to a real elevator may be nothing more than watching other people get in and out of one. That’s it—and the child knows, up front, that’s the only expectation.

On the second trip, we may now add pushing the outside elevator button, but we still never get in.

On the third trip, we put one foot in the door—and then take it out, and that’s it.

On the fourth trip, we step in so that we’re completely inside the elevator, but then we get out before it leaves, and so on.

Note that we may be able to accomplish more than one or even all of the above steps during the same trip to an elevator (depends on how easily the child does each prior step).

For some situations, our baby steps may focus on increasing the proximity to whatever is feared. For example, if our child is afraid of dogs, we may just first watch a dog from our front window, while we stay inside our house. Next, we may watch a dog down the street, and so on, working our way up to standing next to a dog and eventually petting it.

Step 8. We provide on-going dialogue that reinforces we’re conquering our fear.

As our child completes each baby step, the brain registers: “Hey, I survived!  Whatever I feared was going to happen, did not!”  So, it’s important to point that out.

We also want to thank our child for trusting us and for showing the courage to do something that makes him uncomfortable (but is truly safe). Here, we’re shifting the focus from the original fear to a broader concept  . . . one of creating brain maps that say, “I can do this.”

In contrast, when we keep our distorted fears, we reinforce brain maps that say, “Run! I can’t survive! I can’t trust anyone!”–even if that isn’t true. Throughout life, the former mindset is going to serve us much better than the latter.

Step 9.  We stack the deck.

It never hurts to work behind the scenes to ensure things go smoothly. For example, we can keep our child up way past his bedtime on the night he’s going to stay in his bed all night. We can pick a store with the cutest clothes—that just happen to be on the second floor—when we’re going to ride the elevator.  We can find a dog that has never barked once in its life when we’re going to pet it. :-)

10.  We repeat the positive experience in successive days.

This reinforces that new highways are strengthened and the old highway (i.e. the distorted fear) disappears.

Last, we want to celebrate in a way that appeals to our child—both during the process and when the fear is gone. We do so to honor the child’s willingness to conquer a fear and to rejoice that our child’s life will now move forward more smoothly—and with a lot more joy.

The Upside of Letting Go

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When we’re not so attached to an outcome, we find ourselves smiling a whole lot more.

How many times have we been emotionally invested in an outcome, only to react with fear or anger or frustration when it didn’t turn out as we hoped?

Since we can’t control many of the outcomes in our lives, maybe it’s time to give up being so attached to them.  In such case, we still note what we’d like to happen—but then, we let it go, choosing to view all outcomes as just opportunities to learn and grow.

And guess what? Turns our there are lots of perks when we chose to detach from an outcome.  Here are just a few:

  • We don’t waste time worrying about what might happen.
  • We aren’t disappointed by whatever does or does not come to pass.
  • We don’t place judgment on the experience.
  • We aren’t tempted to cheat (e.g. on a test) since we are no longer fixated on the results.

Seems like a pretty good deal for simply shifting how we think.

Yet letting go is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when it comes to our kids.

For example, we’re often calm and collected when dealing with someone else’s child. But the minute our child does the very same thing, we morph into someone else. Why? Well, we’re very attached to our child’s future.

Yet there’s some irony here. The child we’re not nearly as invested in . . . gets the better side of us. Hmmm . .  maybe that awareness alone can help us lighten up when interacting with our own kids.

We may also have trouble letting go if we think we’re owed an apology. Nothing like feeling we’ve been wronged to justify “holding on” to something.

Yet, again, what does that really get us? I’ve found this quote to be helpful in such situations: “Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.”

Last, I think it’s easier to be detached from an outcome if we remember that other people may also be involved in same situation. That means, by default, not everyone is going to get what he or she wants.

Carol Burnett underscored this kind of thinking when she first started her career. I recently watched an interview of her, and she was sharing how she never became upset or second-guessed her talent if she didn’t get a job after an audition. Instead, she just viewed the actor who got the role as . . . this time, it was the other person’s turn.

So, it comes down to this: Is it serving us (or our kids) well whenever we’re attached to an outcome? If the answer is no, then why not let it go and see what happens.

Since I’ve been doing that, I find that I’m traveling much lighter these days—and enjoying the journey so much more.

Instead of Being Defensive

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When we get defensive, we’re no longer communicating on steady ground.

Suppose we’re at a birthday party, and someone makes a negative remark about our child’s behavior. If we personalize the comment, we may do one of the following:

We make excuses.

You know, Sammy was up late last night. That’s why he’s out-of-sorts today.

We argue.

You’re wrong. Sammy did not do (whatever the person said happened). You’re just always on his and my case.

We respond with sarcasm.

Like your child is perfect . . .

We blame others.

Well, Sammy was at his father’s all week—and he just lets him run wild.

We trivialize.

Oh, boys will be boys.

We give a speech.

You have no idea what my life is like. I’m trying to juggle working full-time and meeting my kids’ needs. I’m doing the best I can  . . . (and so on).

But, in truth, how many times does a defensive response improve the situation?  In my life experience, I come up with zero.  So, here are some alternate ways to respond when we think we’re being judged:

We might pause and ponder:

What does that comment reveal about the person who made it (rather than the one it was directed to)?

We might probe for more information.

“What was your intent in sharing that comment with me?” shifts the focus back on the person who made the comment.

We might respond with a ready-to-go phrase,

“Thanks for the feedback” acknowledges what was said, without specifically addressing its content.

We might respond with a ready-to-go one-word response.

“Ouch!” –said with a smile, shifts a negative tone to a more playful one.

Of course, being defensive often escalates into a battle of just proving who’s right and wrong.  For example, suppose we think we arrive on time at our mother-in-law’s house for dinner. But she tells us that we are 30 minutes late, and now all the food is cold.

Yet, we’re sure she told us 6:30, not 6:00—heck, we can even dig up the email that proves our point.  So we go back and forth, insisting we were told 6:30, while she remains adamant that she always said 6:00.

But in such case, does it really matter who is right?  Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest just to move forward and enjoy the meal?

That means if told we’re late (even when we think we weren’t), we can also say, “Thanks for your patience. What can I do to help get the meal back on track?”

And who knows? If we model circumventing defensive arguments, our kids may also start to respond with grace and style when they think they’re being judged.

Seems like a great tool to have in a world that’s not always so kind.

When Kids Say I Hate You

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Do we inadvertently teach our kids
to use hurtful words?

If those three words are part of our child’s arsenal, we want to end that sooner than later. And we can. Here’s how.

1. We don’t take the words personally.

Since it’s been said we lose 50 IQ points when we’re angry, I acknowledge it’s challenging not to take such words to heart—especially when we recall how many diapers we’ve changed, cuts we’ve bandaged, stories we’ve read—and more.  But the minute we go there, we’re on the defensive. The minute we’re on the defensive (for anything), we’re no longer on sure footing.

2.  We defuse any distorted power those words may have in our home.

To do so, we now respond in a way that’s completely different than before. The idea is to react as though the phrase triggers something positive in us. For example, after hearing our child say, “I hate you!” we can smile and respond, “I’m so in the mood for hearing four-letter words that start with /h/ today. Let’s see . . .  what else is there besides hate? There’s hood, hand, hold . . .”

3.  We challenge all family members to eradicate the word “hate” from daily conversations.

We sit down with the entire family and explain that there’s already too much hate in the world.  We also express this concern: Every time we spew hate, we create a brain map that says this is an okay response whenever we don’t like something.

Then we own up if we’ve ever used hate in reference to something, saying we’ve now decided to end doing so.

Next, we establish a kitty. Family members (including the adults) agree to put a set amount of money (e.g. $1.00) or a chore card (e.g. good for doing someone else’s chore in the house) into the kitty every time they say the word hate. (We can also include other negative words, such stupid and shut-up, as part of this challenge). The family member with the least infractions for the week . . . wins the kitty.  If there is nothing in the kitty (i.e. the goal), the whole family celebrates in a way that is appealing to all.

4. We ponder what might improve our overall relationship with our child.

What’s the true emotion behind an “I hate you” statement? Is our child regularly feeling unacknowledged or dismissed? Is our child feeling that he’s often judged or denied something he finds to be justified? In other words, what has previously gone down that our child is now wanting to “hurt” us with such words?  We can’t gloss over this piece of reflection if we really want this to end.

5.  We teach and role-play alternate cortex ways to respond (to move forward).

We share this with our kids: When we use the word hate, it’s actually like wearing a neon sign on our forehead that says, “I want something to change.”  But that’s not even possible if we go straight to the knee-jerk reaction of hating (whatever). So, role-play how to express what we’re actually feeling and needing in a situation. For example, we might say: “I’m feeling really discouraged because I think I cleaned everything as you asked, but you’re still saying I can’t go play with my friends.”

When considering all of the above, we have the opportunity to turn a “hateful” comment into something very positive.

Why We Can’t Stay Quiet

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We regain hope when we learn
the brain can change.

The numbers keep going up.

According to an article by Bloomberg News, the number of children with ADHD has risen 33% in the past decade. Autism has risen nearly fourfold.  In total, about one in six children in the United States has a developmental disability, which is an estimated 10 million kids.

With those numbers, the article raised these concerns: How will we provide enough services to help that many kids? What is it going to cost?

There were no answers. So, maybe it’s time to look through a different lens to help these struggling kids.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with thousands of kids who had developmental disabilities when they first started the Brain Highways program. Yet, many (if not all) of those disabilities dwindled and disappeared once the kids started organizing their brain.  Every time.

But here’s what I also know: Despite the fact that thousands of kids have changed how their brain functions, we’ll continue to see more doom and gloom articles in the very near future.

So something has to change — like maybe right now.

There are just too many kids with brilliant minds and compassionate hearts that we’re overlooking. Who knows? The next incredible inventor, musician, writer, or mathematician may be sitting right next to us—and we don’t even know it.

So I’m asking parents who have participated in brain organization programs to “pay it forward.”  Write your newspaper’s editors. Tell your doctors and classroom teachers.  Revisit prior therapists.  Shout it from the rooftop: We don’t have to sit, helpless, and watch the numbers rise. The brain can change. Best of all, we can teach parents how to help their kids do this.

Of course, the naysayers will say: What? You’re giving parents false hope.  Where’s the research?

Count on that last question. It’s often asked as a way of silencing those who are doing something new and different. It’s also meant to remind parents that there are charlatans and snake oil out there.

And yes, there are.  But this is also true: Many kids have participated in researched-based programs that yielded little or no notable improvements.

So that also needs to be said, again and again:  Researched-based programs don’t necessarily guarantee results for your child.  And programs without research aren’t all snake oil. (Why do I think those comments just made me a target and arrows are flying my way?)

But I’ve decided to stick my neck out there.

Let me clarify. Am I against research? Of course not.  It’s important to document results.  But it’s also possible to do so without published research.

For example, the Brain Highways program has concrete, objective ways to measure success, but we lack formal published, scientific studies. Why? Well, those studies cost a lot of money. They also require unbiased, qualified people to do the work (if the study is going to have true merit), as well as time to track long-term results.  Couple that reality with how many people need help right now . . and we’ve chosen to go straight to the latter by teaching parents how to facilitate their kids’ brain organization—today.  It’s today that Tommy or Susie or Trevor needs help.

So, here’s what we can do.  Let’s start our very own Brain Changing Awareness Week.  Why not? The goal: Use Twitter, Facebook, email, and personal contacts to send this simple two-part message to as many people as possible: The brain can change, and parents can learn how to facilitate their kids’ brain organization.

There are millions of kids waiting and hoping that message is heard.

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