Monday, February 14, 2011

Not Just for Kids!

Thought someone might enjoy the blog I wrote that was just posted on the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation website.

Remember, during a crisis act like a thermostat, not like a thermometer. This is one of the many things I try to share with my graduate students during the class I teach on emotional, behavioral and mental health conditions. Many of the graduate students are also parents and have told me that the suggestion of acting like a thermostat rather than a thermometer is also helpful to them in their homes. This analogy means staying level when your child’s emotions are running wild. Instead, we often act like a thermometer, responding to the distress by heightening our own emotions in response.

This response is called “mirroring”. We have a neural “wi-fi” in our brains that is deeply affected by the actions and behaviors of others. Have you ever noticed that when a discussion gets loud or heated you can change the volume of another person by merely lowering your voice and slowing your speech? The frontal lobe of our brain is the “high road”, working with logic and impulse control and it doesn’t fully develop until the MID-TWENTIES!! The “low road” is, in fact, located down low in our brain and it is the “fight, flight or freeze” part of the brain as well as the master of mirroring. When kids are in stress and their behaviors are strong and negative, adults will mirror those behaviors unless the brain is trained to do otherwise.

Example of mirroring:

1. Stressful event occurs (frustration, failure) which activates the child’s (or adolescent’s) irrational beliefs (adults are unfair, nothing good ever happens to me).
2. These negative thoughts trigger the child’s feelings.
3. Feelings rather than rational thinking drive the child’s inappropriate behavior.
4. Inappropriate behavior (yelling, threatening, refusing to speak) provoke adults.
5. Adults don’t only pick up on this behavior but mirror the behaviors (yell back, threaten, etc.).
6. This negative reaction increases the child’s stress, escalating the conflict into a self-defeating power struggle.
7. Although the child may well lose the battle there is no winner. The irrational beliefs the child had in the first place (nothing good ever happens to me) are reinforced and she or he has no motivation to change or alter beliefs or behaviors.
Children and adolescents must be taught to take the high road. Adults must remember to take the high road.
Stay a "thermostat" even though it is hard. Don’t be a "thermometer" and fluctuate with the temperature around you. Try to:

1. Use “I” messages (less threatening, less likely to promote aggression, good modeling of an honest exchange, interrupts power struggles and releases stress in a healthy way).
2. Step out of the conflict if you feel yourself mirroring. Tell the child you do want to talk to them and can when you are both calmer.
3. Encourage the child to take a break and practice self-calming techniques.
4. Listen carefully for what is not being said (decoding) and try to respond to underlying concern with I messages.

I personally know how difficult this can be, particularly when you are exhausted and it doesn’t seem to get any better. Hopefully these suggestions are helpful or a reminder of things you already know. Find time to take care of yourself. Take a walk, join a book club, do yoga, meditate, stay close to friends, find a group or organization that can support your spiritual side, find time to talk to you partner about something other than your child or adolescent, garden or go to a park or conservatory, pet an animal, write in your journal, and enjoy a small pocket of peace wherever you find it. Remember to breathe.
This is the direct link to the CABF Blog.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I Love Second Graders

“Did you know that Ms. Barr is going to CANCEL recess? What if that were true? How would you feel? What emotions would you have?” My graduate student asked this of four second grade students in a special education classroom. They may all have learning disabilities and struggle with reading and writing but there is nothing wrong with their critical thinking skills. They said they would feel emotions like:

Happy. “I could stay inside.” (On those rainy days that might be nice!)
Disgraced. “Yes, I would feel disgraced if I had to stay in every single day,” said Bao.
Embarrassed. “Why would you feel embarrassed?” asked the teacher. “I would feel embarrassed because we would be the ONLY school around that didn’t get recess!” answered Lillie.

Cancelled recess wasn’t true of course, but it was a writing prompt to which each child could personally relate. They wrote a letter to Ms. Barr telling her how they felt about it and why they felt that way. The children struggled to sound out the words, working hard to put their own thoughts down on paper and to share how they felt with another person. This is writing!

Such a fun day I had. I love winter quarter when I have practicum students out in schools and I have the opportunity to visit, watch, listen, laugh and learn. One small boy with significant bouncing and rocking issues chanted, “Think. Think. Think. Think,” in time to his movements as he sounded out unknown words. I am going to try this technique next time I have a difficult writing task.

Thank you for sharing your day with me!