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Life Skills vs. Social Skills

I remember learning to cook as a small child, helping to bake cookies and enjoying the time that I spent with my grandmother as she made cookies to bring on vacation with us. It was fun, it was important and most of all it taught me skills.

I also remember as a child going to buy something , not having enough money and having to put it back on the shelf. Sometimes I went to the local corner store and bought milk and bread. It was a great feeling when I was the kid chosen to go in alone.  It was a game to see who would get to go walk a mile to go get the milk  and if you were given that level of trust.  If you walked, you could also get a piece of candy. My mom and grandparents were crucial in teaching me life skills at a young age. If anything, I was taught more and at a younger age than I teach my own kids.

When you have children with special health care needs, life skills and social skills come only when it’s time. It is hard to determine what to teach when. I continue to look for that elusive manual that tells you when to teach your child how to go in to the store alone and trust that they know enough not to eat the candy that they do not have money for.  I continue to wonder when to teach my son how to go into the post office and buy stamps alone and add up how much it will cost. He looks at me and says, “Can’t you just buy them online and it will add it for you?” Yes, of course, but I am trying to teach life skills, not the skill to google the world. That is taught enough.

There are wonderful authors who have written about life skills and social skills and you can download lots of ideas.  But it’s hard to teach the emotions, behaviors and understanding that it takes to make a cake, do the dishes, know how to complete a recipe, or clean the kitchen. It is even harder to teach going into a store alone, the post office, bank and/or ordering pizza in person or on the phone. It takes skill, practice and a lot of repitition for any kid as well as clear directions and teaching of the steps.

It has been an eye opener for me over the past few months. My son moved home from residential. His emotions are in check. He is able to talk and let me know when he feels I have not heard him. For social skills and emotional regulation, he gets a B plus.  He continues to struggle with being able to go into stores to get milk. We’ve discussed where the coolers are so that he could remember. He has refused to order a pizza on the phone because, well, that is just too hard. Life skills continue to be a struggle daily. But with practice he will catch up . He is determined and so am I.

My middle son, the community child, has done an amazing job learning life skills. Ordering a pizza is no problem, cooking dinner- no issue, and clean – got it! He makes complete dinners and has for the last 4 years. Loves cooking since age 11. He can also do the stamps on the bills and knows where to put the stamp- that is a life skill too! He continues to put the family’s needs ahead of his own.  But the anger, the emotion and the connection to allow friends and family members to give suggestions or have a conversation is hard. Social skills continue to be a struggle in his life.

Finally, there’s my daughter.  She is developmentally about 10 years younger than she is chronologically. She works on life skills and social skills daily. It is a daily routine in our house to do, learn and teach each other. I am a lucky mom to have three sensitive and caring children. My challenge is getting them ready to spread their wings. It will happen in its own time and mine. What won’t wait is the society around them. The world is not a patient place sometimes for our kids. It takes time for many to remember that kids are kids and teens are teens.   

So as you go into that store and see a teen or adult looking for the milk – ask if they need help. They just may need a little direction to allow them to gain a skill.  Remember both my sons and daughter have had many challenges, triumphs and teaching opportunities as they have grown but it may take your kindness to help them “get it”.

Meri Viano is our guest blogger.  She is the parent of two sons and a daughter who continue to inspire her blog posts.

Gotta laugh

Bill Cosby once said, “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” Humor has been used to survive serious illnesses and live through terrible situations. Although it’s not one of the first things we talk about, most parents use humor to cope with the day to day chaos of parenting a child with mental health needs.

Survivors of similar experiences can often recognize each other.  When you and another parent find something hilarious that others don’t, there’s a strong chance you’ve both lived through something much the same.  You both are struck by the absurdity of the situation, understanding that no one else  would believe it, unless they had also lived through it.

When our sons were younger, a friend and I used to share stories and commiserate.  We would often remark, “I can’t believe he was so stupid!”  One time my son took a note that a classmate had written about him that he didn’t want any one else to see.  After school, he ducked into an alley in the town center, pulled out a lighter and set it on fire.  Of course, a police officer walked by at that moment and he was given a warning.  When we talked later, he told me he HAD to burn it, not rip or toss it and it had to be immediately.  It didn’t occur to him not to set a fire in the town center.  I called my friend and moaned, “I can’t believe he was so stupid.” A few days later she had a story to top mine.  We ended up buying the URL for mychildisstupid.com, although we never ended up using it.  No doubt there would have been some hysterical stories that topped either of ours!

We laugh about our children for a lot of different reasons.  Sometimes, it’s because they are so darned funny. Sometimes it’s because they have such a hard time seeing the humor in life.  Sometimes it’s because we can’t believe it, are gobsmacked by what happened or we can’t think of what else to do.  So we laugh.

Research tells us that laughter is a wonderful thing.  It boosts the immune system, releases endorphins and protects the heart.  But most of us don’t laugh to increase our health.  Raising a child with mental health needs is a roller coaster ride.  There are good days and bad days.  There are times that exhaust us, frighten us, frustrate us, anger us and sadden us.  There are times that gladden us and encourage us as well. There are times when we feel incredibly lonely.

Humor is a way to share the experience.  Humor can bring you closer to one another and confirm the comraderie of people who have been through the worst and lived to laugh about it.  It creates a new language to share your experience that is free of labels, acronyms and pathology.  It can be dark or droll, sarcastic or dry and express the variations of our lived experience.

Years ago, when I ran a support group, the mom of a nine year old boy used to attend regularly.  Her son was alternately despondent and manic and they had not yet found much that helped him.  Sometimes he saw things that weren’t really there.  Through it all, though, she would tell stories of their week in a way that made all of us laugh.  We were empathising with her and rooting for her each step of the way.  One week, she came to the group and told us that the day before her son had run to her.  “A stranger got in the house,” he said.  “How do you know?” she asked him.  He thought a moment and told her, “I was just in your room and there’s a strange man jumping up and down on the bed.”  “Honey,” she replied, “I should be so lucky.”