Chaos to Calm
Q: Why is my child misbehaving?
A: We often see a problem and make assumptions about what’s going on. We need to replace our own assumptions and theories such as: “manipulative, lazy, and spoiled” with curiosity. We can start to chase the “why” behind the behavior. Does my child have slow processing speed? Is the environment too noisy, stressed, or rushed? Does my child have sensory sensitivities and defensiveness? Is my child trying to escape and avoid something or seek my attention, even negative attention?
Q: How can I help my child relax and calm down?
A: When our child starts to get stressed, we get reactive. We have a primitive threat detective part in our brain and our brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze. When threat arises, our children escalate, and parents escalate. We need to recognize our counterproductive responses to our children’s maladaptive behaviors such as: distractions, denial, and minimization, degrading comments, and blaming their emotional states such as “Relax, it’s not a big deal” or “Six year-old’s don’t act like this”. Instead, try to lean into the emotions and determine the child’s triggers. What improves the child’s behavior? Is it movement, eating a snack, deep pressure? Wait for the teachable moment, when they’re calm and you’re calm, to talk about their emotions. Parents can be emotionally responsive rather than reactive. We can see what they’re really feeling and validate it. We can communicate comfort rather than threat. If we deal with the behavior rather than the emotion, it’s like treating the symptom without knowing what the cause is. The following strategies can help calm your stressed child.
- Breathing: Ask your child to smell the flowers for 3-4 seconds. As you breathe in, fill your belly up. Blow out the candles for 4-6 seconds. Listen to yourself breathing.
- Give a “trigger word” to cue the child to breath and calm down before they escalate (i.e., study). Practice this when your child is calm and relaxed.
- Drawing: Ask your child to draw a problem and how they felt. “Is someone pulling your strings? You don’t have to be their puppet!”
- Become a tree: Take your shoes off, wiggle your toes, feel your feet. Imagine your feet have roots growing into the ground. Feel how sturdy you are! Just like a tree trunk. Now lift your feet, but keep the roots long.
- Deep Pressure: Sensory input can calm your child down. Jumping, hugs, squeezes, playing “Row Row Your Boat” by sitting across from your child, holding hands, touch toes and pull/push back and forth, or push and roll a large therapy ball over the child’s body while laying down.
- Mindfulness: It is helpful to encourage the child to become more mindful of what they are feeling. Try getting below his eye level and say: “I see that you’re feeling a lot of worry about this and I understand. You’re having such a hard time, you look so unhappy, I’m right here with you. How are you feeling about this? Are you feeling it in your stomach? How fast are you breathing? How loud are you talking? How does your body feel? What is your face doing? What is your reaction to others? Will you regret saying something? How much energy do you have? Are you hungry or tired? What are you thinking about?” Repeat back to your child, what they say to you.
- Homework: Most children feel like homework is the most important thing to their parents. You could say: “You are so much more important to me than this homework. I notice you’re having a hard time getting your work done. I hear you. Why is this challenging for you? How can I support you to make this easier for you? You matter more to me than this work. Suggest sitting on a therapy ball while their doing their homework, or putting Velcro under the table.
- Sleeping: Many children with anxiety have difficulty going to sleep. Try giggling and whisper with them under the covers. Ask your child to put her hand on her chest and tell her to slowly relax each body part, starting from feet to head. Each body part becomes heavier and heavier as they breathe in and out.
- Ask your child to swallow mean words and roll your shoulders back.
- Driving: When the child is frustrated in the car, you could say: “You’re mad, I’m mad and I really want to hear what you want to say but I don’t think I can be a good listener right now. Let’s listen to this calming music.”
- Collaborative problem solving. “Let’s come up with a solution that we will work for both of us.” You want X and I want Y. Let’s come up with a plan that will work for both of us.” “I wonder if you feel this way because….”
- Ratings: Ask the child, “Is this a big problem or small problem? What is your level of stress? How is your engine running? Is it running too hot or too cold? Are you in the red zone (angry), green zone (centered), or blue zone (non-responsive)? What is your body telling you? Maybe it’s telling you don’t feel safe.”
- Demands capacities Theory: It is important to determine if your child “will not” do what you want them to do, or “cannot” do what you want them to do. Are the environmental demands exceeding your child’s capacities (overscheduled, noises, lack of sleep)? Are they being oppositional because they’re too overwhelmed?
Q: Time-out’s just don’t work for my child. What else can I do?
- Safety zones: Create a “safety zone” in your house for your child to retreat to when they feel stressed and before they escalate (tent in room).
- Choices: Provide your child with two choices and avoid giving empty threats that you cannot or will not follow through with.
- Breaks: Try using the phrase “break time” instead of “time out.” Ask the child to turn a snow globe upside down and when all the material is at the bottom, he can come back to you when he feels calmer. Or, use a kaleidoscope for the child to look at when taking “breaks.” When you are stressed, model taking a break for yourself and say “Mommy’s taking a break.”
- Music: Play calming music such as “Mozart for modulation.” “Baroque for modulation.”
- Re-directing: Playfulness, tickling, and laughter can often help pull a child out of a tantrum before it escalates out of control.
Q: Why is my child so disorganized?
A: Some children have difficulty with executive functioning skills. They have difficulty making plans, time management, making connections with what they know, keeping track of one thing at a time, evaluating ideas, reflecting on ideas, flexibility, asking for help or knowing when it’s time seeking for more information, difficulty engaging in group dynamics, socializing, or waiting to talk. Children with executive functioning dysfunction have difficulty figuring out what they want to do by having a creative idea, planning, initiating, organizing, sequencing, executing, terminating, and timing a task. These children may physically isolate themselves because they cannot initiate an activity.
Q: How can social skills group help my child?
A: Social skills group therapy can help alleviate your child’s anxiety, social skills, worry, and stress. Social skills therapy focuses on the following pragmatic language skills:
- Impulse control, frustration tolerance, and emotional regulation. Role playing self-regulating strategies: walking away to a safe place, visualizing positive experiences, deep breathing, and deep pressure.
- Reasoning (i.e., If I say X then other’s may feel Y).
- Good sportsmanship and learning how to react to winning and losing.
- Rating problems on a 5 point scale with small vs. big problems and reasonable reactions to the severity of the problem.
- Utilizing bridging phases such as: “That reminds me of the time I…. Bye the way, on a different subject, speaking of…“, showing interest by commenting, and “passing the question back” to keep the conversation going.
- Theory of Mind and perspective taking: Understanding that it’s ok if other’s have a different perspectives, beliefs, opinions, ideas, and emotions, based on their own past experiences.
- Learning the social filter theory: I can think and feel one way, but say something more appropriate to the situation, to prevent uncomfortable feelings.
- Paying attention to nonverbal cues from others to determine what they might be thinking and feeling so that we can react to them appropriately.
- Understanding the “social fake”: In society, we have a social responsibility to show interest, even if we are not very interested in the topic or activity.
- The importance of being flexible, cooperative, and considerate.
- Greetings can be different based on the context and environment (informal versus formal, adults vs. peers.)
- Creating personalized social stories to target specific problems and create effective solutions.
- Self-advocating strategies of how to deal with bullies (i.e., the worry bully).
- Creative problem solving strategies: coming up with more than one solution and deciding how to prevent the problem from happening.
- Learning abstract language such as: idioms, sarcasm, humor, and jokes to understanding the intensions of others better (accidental vs. purposeful behavior).
- Practice making facial expressions and learning emotional vocabulary.
- Creating a bravery chart to encourage the child to take risks, chances, and tolerating discomfort. Sometimes we’ll have belly flops and sometimes we’ll have beautiful high dives. Show me your “brave body.”
- What works for your body and brain? Is it music, movement?
Q: How can an Occupational Therapist help my child?
A: Many children with anxiety also have sensory sensitivities to sounds, clothing, and lighting. Occupational therapists focus on sensory integration therapy, and regulating the child’s sensory system so that they feel more comfortable in their own skin and “grounded.” An OT looks at a child through a sensory lens and chases the “why” behind the behavior. Is the child sensory seeking, sensory avoiding, becoming easily aroused? What is the child’s processing speed, and how is their proprioception and vestibular processing? A licensed OT can provide you with more information on sensory processing skills:
Flexi-Lexi Learns to be Flexible
The highly sensitive child
The Gut Brain
The out of sync child
Zones of Regulation
The highly explosive Child (Ross Green)
The Whole Brained Child
What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety
What to do when you grumble too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming negativity