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We’ve all heard of this phenomenon – Fight or Flight – an instinctive coping mechanism for dealing with danger, programmed into our very cells from the beginning of time.
Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to react quickly enough to the sudden appearance of a sabre-toothed tiger, or produce the adrenaline to fuel an exhausting and perilous hunt through the forests, on the seas or over the icy wastes for meat.
I’m just realising that this instinct is still very much part of our physiological makeup – even though we don’t tend to bump into mammoths or packs of hyena, these days, whilst doing our daily chores. I am speaking for myself here – I know there are plenty of places in the world, where danger lurks around every corner, and where people are constantly on the lookout for the next tornado, black mamba snake or huntsman spider. (The weather sucks in the UK, but there are advantages…)
However much we surround ourselves with ‘new generation’ technological gadgets and fripperies, our bodies are still primitive and basic. All our chemicals, impulses, valves, pumps and reflexes work mindlessly to keep us alive for as long as possible, and we have very little control over this system. We can control our central heating from mobile phones, or our car sound systems to the enth degree – but the enzymes and hormones our organs produce? Not so much.
Now this may seem like a non-sequitur but recently I have found it increasingly frustrating, helping my daughter with her school work.
Oh – who am I kidding?? I have ALWAYS found her attitude to homework maddening.
From the very first spellings, when she blithely announced that she didn’t want to spell a word the correct way, because she didn’t feel like it that day, to a recent argument over a specific approach to solving a maths question, when she shouted at me, “You don’t know anything about Maths! You’re just a mum!” - we have often clashed over homework.
Everything goes well, until it doesn’t. She’ll be happily inserting numbers in boxes or circling correct answers or whatever… and then suddenly, the frowny face appears. The pencil is slammed on to the table. The arms are folded with an audible huffing sound. Then she glares at me. At ME. Even though I’m innocently slicing a carrot, or rinsing rice on the other side of the kitchen.
“I can’t DO it,” she growls.
Even as I open my mouth, I know that I’m going to make it worse… “Oh. Did you mean, ‘Please can you help me Mummy’??” I ask, hating the sarcasm in my tone.
I mentally slap my wrists for my passive-aggressive reaction. Then I sit down beside her, try to put on my professional, calm teacher-face, and use my authoritative but patient teacher-voice… and usually, within 5 minutes, my daughter has flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
This process repeats itself most Sundays (designated homework day), and I often find myself sitting next to her, gritting my teeth, wondering how it can be harder to help ONE small girl do a page of maths, than teach 30 under 7-s how to play xylophones, whilst singing an African song in two parts and balancing on one leg.
I have tried using manipulatives (counters, in plain-speak), drawing illustrations on paper, singing maths songs, and cutting up cakes into fractions. It doesn’t matter how quietly I speak, or how varied my explanations – it always ends badly; ends with tears, stomping, slamming and retreating under the bedcovers. (And that’s just me.)
The most frustrating thing is… she’s perfectly capable at maths. She really is. But the tiniest mistake can send her over the edge – the kind of careless mistakes that we all make.
I try to tell her this – I say, “Mummy sometimes miscalculates when she’s adding up the shopping, but she doesn’t chuck the shopping basket at the cashier, storm out of Tescos, and hide under the bed.”
Slowly, I’ve come to realise that she really can’t help it. She’s not throwing a tantrum just for the hell of it, and she sure isn’t enjoying these traumatic homework sessions.
She can’t help it, because she has an oversensitive ‘Fight or Flight’ mechanism – sometimes known as ‘The Guard Dog’.
Our Fight or Flight isn’t just triggered by mad hairy beasts, earthquakes and sword fights. It can be triggered by anything that feels vaguely threatening or distressing.
Like Maths homework.
My daughter has learned to become tense, even at the mere mention of homework, alerting her guard dog to approaching danger. Every tiny mishap, or confusing question begins to speed up her breathing, and her brain becomes foggy with adrenaline. Her body doesn’t want to sit through a demonstration of cake-slicing, or number line use. Her muscles are filling with blood in preparation to flee or confront. Her body wants to stand up and either punch something hard, or run away to a dark, comfortingly small space where long division cannot follow.
She hates feeling out of control. She hates the feeling of shame that overwhelms her when she gets something wrong. She absolutely hates to fail.
I don’t know why it took me so long to realise what was going on. I should have recognised it immediately, because this is EXACTLY how I responded to the Japanese language lessons that my mother did with me when I was a child. I used to dread seeing the text books come out. I used to feel sweat break out on my brow and cramps begin in my belly.
I remember wanting to scream with frustration because I didn’t understand. I couldn’t read – the Japanese letters seemed to twist and slip in my brain, never allowing me to grasp them or recall them from week to week. It was like having to start from scratch every single time.
This was unacceptable to me. I was considered clever at school. I could play the recorder, the piano, I could sing, I could draw, I got 10 out of 10 for my spelling and times tables tests every week. I simply could not be the sort of person who could fail at Japanese – who had a smooth, slippery place in her brain where nothing Japanese would stick – the sort of child who could anger her mother each time the books came out.
I used to sit, bitterness and rage fermenting inside my heart, while I watched huge tears plop onto the page in front of me – a page scrawled with undecipherable hieroglyphics. I’d feign sickness. I’d pretend to fall asleep. Anything to bring those seemingly never-ending sessions to an early close.
Eventually, my mother gave up. Neither of us enjoyed those sessions.
Today I look back and think, ‘But for my overactive guard dog, I might be fluent in Japanese. I might be able to read and write. I might have empowered myself to fully own my Japanese-ness, giving myself the freedom and confidence to make decisions based on what I can do – not on what I can’t. My guard dog growled and barked and leapt so fiercely that I believed my life was being threatened. I rushed over and I closed the door – an action I regret now. Is it too late to open the door?’
Above all, I recognise how important it is that my daughter doesn’t respond in the same way. It would be an awful shame if, at the tender of 9, she shut the door on Maths – afraid of how it makes her feel.
We are working on recognising the guard dog when he appears, and practising ‘square breathing’ - breathing in slowly over 3 beats, holding the breath for 3 beats, breathing out slowly for 3 beats, and staying still for 3 beats – then repeating over and over again.
After a couple of minutes of this, she calms down, her body recognises that there can be no real threat, and her adrenalin levels return to normal.
I have realised that I need to up my game as a parent. I thought I was being a good mum by encouraging her to do her school work, and sitting with her or explaining tricky concepts. But I was so pleased with myself; so SURE that I was in the right, and she was just a flighty drama queen; I failed to empathise with how she was feeling, and didn’t spot a terrible family pattern being repeated before my very eyes.
Anyway. For now, the guard dog is doing yoga and thinking positive thoughts.