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Zooming in - and catastrophizing

For a while now on my Mum-Care Diaries Facebook page, I've been posting a picture or a couple of pictures after my school run. Each pic is a moment of 'zooming in', where I stop to breathe for a moment and notice something that makes me smile. There have been guest appearances by a teabag, a purse and a child's gift, but mostly I've posted flowers from my garden.

So here's the thing: I only just realised that some people now think I have an amazing garden! This is partly embarrassing and partly hilarious. I have some beautiful, beautiful flowers in my garden and we do get visits from wonderful bees and butterflies, but like the rest of my home, there's a whole lot of mess too. The flowers are grown in pots, as our soil is clay and flint and frankly I'd broken too many spades trying to tame it. There are more bikes than we can fit in our two sheds (thanks to The Cyclist/Husband with his four or five) and the grass is not cut as often as it should be. I also found a sock at the top of the garden quite recently, and a few weeks ago there was a cereal bowl next to the trampoline. Oh and weeds? We got 'em.

But this broader picture shows EXACTLY why 'zooming in' matters. I spent most of my life, and particularly my life as a Mum, being overwhelmed by the big picture and missing the glorious details - not to mention panicking and forgetting to breathe! (And no, that's not an exaggeration; I've frequently stressed myself into an urgent need for Ventolin.) Just to put it into perspective for a moment: when my big picture was (it seemed to me) the washing created by two newborns and a two-year-old, and the 'zoom in' I missed was a gummy smile or a toddler's gasp of delight, that's an issue and a regret and a non-undo-able sad thing. Or, as our kids get older, if the bigger picture is being the Mum in charge of EVERYTHING, and the 'zoom in' is the Person bit of us that needs a moment or a day of care, we really must learn to pause and do that zooming. So although I'd hate you to think that I've deliberately misrepresented my garden, I'm actually very proud that some of you might have shared a moment of 'Wow, that's amazing!' when I've focused in on something beautiful (or the occasional teabag). And if I can find beauty in what is definitely not a show garden or a show home or a show life, it is definitely not impossible to find it in a world generally more well-tended than mine. (Just find a sleeping child. Far more reliably 'ahhh' than the awake kind.)

To go Special Needs Mum on you for a moment, this 'zooming in' is a skill I'm determined to teach my kids. Neurodiverse kids, as well as survivors of trauma or those suffering from anxiety, have a tendency to imagine worst case scenarios and then see them as certain outcomes rather than slight possibilities. If you don't do this, just take a moment to try and imagine it. I've been there at various times in my life, and when my children are struggling, they can get to this point very quickly. It was only when I started the process of taking them to professionals for assessment that I heard the word 'catastrophizing'. I thought at first that it was a word made up on the spot by the CAMHS assessor, but then I heard it again, visited Mr. Google, and discovered that it is a recognised psychological term (and yes, editor friends from my past, it appears to come with a 'z', via the U.S.). On (Mr. Google's apparent bestie), Dr. John M. Grohol describes catastrophizing as 'an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is'. He identifies two main types of catatrophizing: 'making a catastrophe out of a current situation, and imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation'.

A fear of something like flying is so widespread as to be considered normal, and we 'get it' that some people imagine plunging to their deaths in a plane every time they book a ticket, leave their wills somewhere obvious and say goodbye to their families. But a tendency to catastrophize can be applied to far more 'mundane' situations or be all-encompassing and therefore far more limiting for many. My kids seem to embody the common belief that a lot of autistic people look for patterns, so if something uncomfortable or downright 'bad' happened once in a particular situation, it's pretty easy for them to imagine it's now going to happen every single time they find themselves in that situation again. As a footballer starting matches around age five, the worst thing my eldest son (The Big Boy) could imagine was losing, and of course it did happen, in amongst draws and wins. Eight years on, he still goes into every sports match feeling the defeat before it happens. He says this protects him from disappointment if the team does eventually lose, BUT it also makes him under-perform so that he ends up contributing to a loss, which leads him into a different form of downward spiral around the idea that he's going to be thrown off the team, or even leads him into such an anxious state that he is reluctant to play the following weeks, while actually loving the training and the sport. The Dog is convinced that if he gets told off once in a new school year that his relationship with the teacher is doomed; she will hate him and label him 'bad' and there is no way he will be able to do anything to make her like him again. Watching him deflate a few weeks into every year because he's been told off or even just had a gentle reminder about his behaviour, and then spending weeks or months working with the teacher to build up his confidence again just plain breaks my heart. It's not rational, but it's real to him and he has yet to break out of the pattern. The Cat is awaiting an imminent Apocalypse, having heard about Climate Change. (Hard to respond to this one; he may be right.) And you know what? My own brain gets very quickly into a soupy mess of 'I've done parenting all wrong / My Tupperware collection means that I personally destroyed the planet / We'll be bankrupt unless I bake gingerbread instead of buying expensive snacks / and so on.

But those are pretty minor cases compared to the agonies of catastrophization suffered by some. Think of the many, many children feeling unable to attend school. The official term is 'school refusal', but for many SEN kids, an event or situation at school, or the general sensory overwhelm or social demands of an educational setting, can trigger so much anxiety in them that the thought of any school is too tightly entangled with their deepest fears for there to be an easy fix. (It can seem impossible to some parents, and I have one child who particularly thrives on going to school, but when a SEN parent talks of school phobia or school-induced anxiety, or mentions trauma, they mean it; anxiety-based refusal is NOT a behavioural blip or case of pure cussedness/parental weakness.) To add to the joy, as we grow older we become more aware of risk, and have whole new hosts of worst case scenarios. I suspect all of us know or have heard of someone with a really debilitating fear of, for example, roads, meeting animals, shops - any part of life that might seem completely, rationally fine to anyone else. This is not just a kid issue, or a SEN issue.

I'm lucky in that I definitely grew up with a tendency to catastrophize, but it has generally passed before things have got too bad. Crucially, learning about my kids' own tendencies from both them and the professionals we've visited has allowed me to see and deal with that tendency in myself. I look back now and regret that for so long after the twins were born, I believed I might as well give up on parenting, because my kids just seemed so unhappy (it was reflux) and clearly I was never going to be any good at being a Mum of three. I believed deep down that they were going to be taken away because I was such a terrible mother. Actually they were clean, fed, cuddled and safe, and even if they hadn't been, nobody was spying down the chimney and ready to swoop in and condemn me. (Or even - which would have been great - ready to swoop in and help me.) It was all irrational. PND is a Nasty Big Baddie, and if you are prone to catastrophizing, it gets even worse. I like to think that with what I've learned since, I would deal with the situation differently now, and that I might be able to help my kids a bit too.

So, I look at flowers. And I get my kids to look at flowers, or bees, or passing planes, or sports cars, or anything that might make a boy's heart leap just a little. This is so very hard for The Cat in particular, as his sensory processing difficulties mean that he is assaulted on all sides by sounds and smells and sights that the rest of us can easily filter out, but I need him to understand the 'zoom in' concept, and to know that I'll try to understand his difficulties and to help him, or to help him find another technique that can centre him a bit. Similarly, if they tell me about something that has happened that was good, we talk about it at length, and I try to look as excited as a toddler discovering some new wonder, because otherwise the little sparkle of 'good' gets lost amongst the stresses, catastrophes and whole new 'worst case scenarios' of their day.  They see my shoulders tense when I start to get caught in a bigger picture that I don't like, and two in particular are attuned to my breathing after asthma scares, so those are the times where I force myself to show them a flower or grab hold of them for a cuddle and wonder over the length of their eyelashes or the softness of their cheeks. Helps me, and models for them.

I struggle sometimes to help them in the right way at the right time, but my hope is that they can at least see me helping myself, and one day remember that. Self-care now is not just self-care: it's teaching and learning and kids stampeding in and out through the process. It's Mum-Care, and it matters.

(And after that Sermon from the Laptop, I'm almost certainly going to lose the plot at least once after school and shout about vegetables, shoes, rude words or physical violence between siblings. Ho hum. Zoom in, Mum-Person, zoom in.)


  1. Oh my goodness - the over-reaction to being told off! My son now has it in his EHCP that he will bolt if told off. It is the end of the world to him. I love this post. I shall be zooming in from now on...

    1. It’s so sad to see them crumble like that, isn’t it? Makes you realise just how fragile they are and how anxious they must be while trying desperately to impress in the ‘pre-telling-off’ stages. But yes, let’s all ‘zoom’ and hope for the best!


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