In my last post, I shared a question from goodfountain, who writes a wonderful blog about life with her two girls, the older of whom has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder. I shared some of my favorite strategies that caregivers (including parents, babysitters, grandparents, and teachers) can use to help ease transitions and prepare children for challenges in their day.
Today I’d like to share a few ideas that might help 5-year old Charlotte with the handling of her overwhelming emotions:
In the moment you described (not wanting to take off her Princess gown to go to Target) when your daughter lost her temper and tried to bite you, she was mostly likely feeling very dysregulated and scared/threatened. It helps to think about it in those terms, rather than viewing this type of reaction as “negative behavior” – it makes it a lot easier to feel empathetic and is, I think, accurate. She felt really good in that dress and the idea of taking it off was probably very upsetting (and even threatening) to her, so when you added the idea of you and her sister going to the car without her, it increased her anxiety to the point where her fight or flight response was activated – and she chose fight. In addition to giving you more strategies to help her prepare for such challenges, we want her to start to recognize her internal signals of anger and frustration and learn to manage them before she gets to that point. As you said so beautifully: “It’s not that I want to STOP her from being angry, but that I want her to not lose control when she IS angry.”
It is critical that we allow our children to own their feelings. Our job is not to keep them from experiencing negative emotions, but rather to help them identify their emotions, gauge how intense they are, and choose a coping strategy that matches the intensity.
To that end, it is useful to pause often and model this for kids; in other words, let them know how we are feeling. For example, “I am feeling pretty frustrated right now. The woman in that store wasn’t listening to me at all. I am going to sit quietly for a minute and take some deep breaths before we go home.” Similarly, pause in your day to check in with your daughter. You might find a way to talk about negative emotions that works for her level. Making a weather analogy is often helpful; we can identify that we’re feeling “sunny”, “partly cloudy”, and be aware that it’s time to come up with strategies when we start to feel “stormy”. Help her to talk about how she’s feeling and become more aware of the natural changes that occur throughout the day.
We have a great visual aid that I believe I was first introduced to at a SCERTS workshop. On a small square piece of paper we write on one side: “When I feel angry…” and on the other side it says, “I can…” and then we list 2-4 strategies to help the child calm down, e.g., talk to someone, take a break/quiet space, say “I’m mad,” go get a drink of water, etc. The child chooses the strategies. This is laminated and we put a key ring through it and hang a few of them in easy to reach places (they’d be easy to keep in Charlotte’s pocket, looped to a backpack, or in your purse) so when a meltdown starts, we can quietly hand it to the child and they can choose what they want to do to get under control (become more emotionally regulated) without a lot of verbal negotiation. We generate these strategies with the child him/herself in a quiet moment so that they are meaningful. It is impossible to reason with an angry or frustrated child in the moment, it really has to happen at a different time. For a non-reader, picture images can be used just as effectively as words. In my experience, we don’t usually need to use this external strategy for very long before the child internalizes her own calming strategies and is able to access them without the adult’s help.
Another great strategy for your daughter would be to do some work with The Feelings Book, which is a dry erase book that has pages depicting a wide range of positive and negative emotions. The child can write down what makes her feel a particular emotion (e.g., angry) on one side, and then generate strategies on the opposite page (When I feel angry, I can…). She can write it herself if she is older, or dictate to an adult. This leads to some wonderful conversations about emotions and coping strategies.
I also love that there is a 1-5 scale at the top of each emotion page where the child can think about degrees of emotion, e.g., “Having to turn off the TV makes me a little angry – that’s a ‘2’” but “Taking off my princess gown makes me very angry – that’s a ‘5’!” and you can discuss strategies that work for mild anger versus extreme anger with an older child. It could be great to use this book together and then use the strategies to create the little portable card described above. You can order The Feelings Book directly from my colleague who is one of its creators, Emily Rubin, MS, CCC/SLP. It’s available on her website. Take a look at it, it’s really great! We have many copies of this at the clinic and kids of all ages love it and have greatly benefited from it.
What we ultimately want to do is help a child learn strategies to self-regulate (learn to self-soothe, e.g., move away from a stressful situation, go hit a pillow, get a piece of gum) and also be sure they have good mutual regulation skills (e.g., asking for help, asking for a hug, labeling their emotions for someone else). To be healthy, we all need a balance of self- and mutual-regulation skills.
I’m happy to elaborate or go more deeply into any of this if you would like me to. Emotional processing is one of my absolute favorite things to work on – it’s so critical to successful relationships throughout the lifespan!
The next post will include a follow-up from Charlotte’s mom, sharing which of these strategies she’s tried and what has worked.