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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

The New Mom Motto: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Categories: children, parenting, special needs kid, stress

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I have a new mantra these days: What’s the worst thing that can happen? I ask myself this all the time, in moments where I am getting overwhelmed and stressed out, and I use it with both of my kids. And no matter what the situation, the answer is rarely anything of real consequence.

What do I mean by that? Here’s an example: Henry loses things, all the time. Most frequently, he loses his schoolwork. Assignments disappear into his backpack or his binder or his cubby and show up on the weekly grade report as zeros. Until recently, he would completely fall apart when this happened because those missing vocabulary cards meant that he would fail English which meant that he would fail seventh grade which meant that his life was ruined and why couldn’t I just leave him alone?!?

That was always fun.

And then one day he was frantically searching through his things for a paper he had lost and starting to flip out and Wade said to him, “If you don’t find it, what’t the worst thing that will happen?” Henry started to yell about failing out of school and Wade said, “What is your grade right now? What will a zero do that that grade, mathematically?” And Henry stopped yelling and did the math and said, “Huh, so if I get a zero on this I’ll still have a B in the class.”

“Right,” Wade said. “That’s the worst possible thing that could happen. Your grade will go from an A to a B.”

That moment changed our whole family.

We ask the kids all the time now when they are getting overwhelmed or stressed out: What’s the worst thing that could happen? For Henry, it’s almost lways about his school work because that’s the most tangible thing he deals with. He forgets books and loses assignments, but he’s so smart that he is able, for the most part, to make up for the zeros on homework and in-class assignments with high grades on tests and projects. And because Wade and I have realized this, too, we have stopped helping him organize his work, because the worst case scenario is that he gets Bs — or occasionally a C — on his report card instead of all As.

(The bigger lesson for us this year has been that while Henry is intellectually able to get all As, his various issues — the anxiety, the ADHD, the terrible social skills — make it nearly impossible for him to do all the things that he’s asked to do in order to earn an A in each class. And if the worst thing that happens is that he gets a C every once in a while, then we can live with that.)

Taking this approach — spinning out the real worst outcome of any situation — has not only lowered everyone’s stress level, it has also compelled both of my kids to take more responsibility for things. This week, Henry came home and said, “Mom, I forgot to take my math book to class today, so I got a zero on the in class problem set.”

“That’s a bummer,” I said.

He sighed. “I know, and I promise that tomorrow I’ll remember my book. But I understand this unit and I know I can do the problem sets.” Because the worst thing that could happen, he knows, would be not to learn the material in this unit and to fall behind in what he’s learning. Missing one problem set because he was disorganized isn’t a big deal — unless it affects his ability to understand the whole lesson.

For Henry, every situation is a possible worst case scenario; every interaction has the possibility to go horribly wrong, both in his head and in real life. Asking him to step back and actually articulate what might happen is helpful because often, he can see that the thing he fears is not likely to come to pass. Losing one assignment will not mean he fails the entire year.

Every time things go off the rail at our house, I stop and ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen? So Henry doesn’t go to school today — what’s the worst thing that could happen? He will fall behind in class. I will have to run on the treadmill instead of outside. We will eat leftovers for dinner. No one will die or file for divorce or…whatever the alternatives are. Because I have also learned that while we fear the worst, we don’t really have any idea what the “worst” thing would be. Realizing that makes it easier to take a deep breath and move forward and just deal with whatever is going on.

I don’t love that my life is a series of nearly-worst-case scenarios; I don’t enjoy it, and I would do just about anything to change it. Then again, I suppose I’m working on changing it, by teaching Henry — and Wade and Charlie and myself — to focus on what’s going right, not what’s going wrong, and to own the most horrible possibility. Because really, in almost every case, the worst thing that can happen is not all that bad.

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