emotional regulation

  • Tickle understands birthdays much more than he used to. We met him for the first time on my birthday; we'd brought cake, and we shared it, and he sang Happy Birthday to me. That's what birthdays were: cake and singing. Tickle moved in with us about a week before his sixth birthday. I still remember we had to practically drag him in to the toy shop to choose a present, and he literally pointed at the thing right in front of him. (He wasn't that interested in the presents on the day itself, but he did sing to his cake quite a lot.)

    It's my birthday tomorrow. Tickle is quite excited about that, because he knows there will be cake. I'm working early tomorrow, so as there won't be time for presents in the morning we decided to do them this evening instead. Tickle was *extremely* excited about this, so much so that the excitement tipped right over in to getting really cross that he wasn't allowed to open anything, and WHY NOT I GOT ANY PRESENTS??

    He actually coped pretty well, sat on my lap, and passed me things to open. It helps that his birthday is so close to mine - we talked about his cake, his presents, whilst eating my cake and opening my presents.

    This year, Tickle has requested a birthday party - swimming, no less - and has chosen two children from his class at school who he would like to invite. He's also able to talk about what sort of cake he wants (beyond 'chocolate', I mean) and what he would like for presents (beyond 'chocolate cake'). It makes me a bit emotional, actually, as it's such a tangible sign of how far he has come.

    My favourite moment though was when he proudly announced that he'd got me a raspberry and rad-ash-oh cake! (Pistachio, in case you're wondering!) I think that's what it will be called forevermore :)

  • Two sleeping catsWe had to have our cat put down yesterday. She was only two years old, so it came as a huge shock to all of us. We are all coping with it in our own ways; Fairy is distracting herself with books and writing stories, I am crying buckets and welded to my duvet, Husband is musing about getting a memorial wind chime for our apple tree. Tickle, however, has been the biggest surprise. Tickle, is demonstrably and unashamedly sad.

    Tickle doesn't spend much time interacting with the cats, but I know he does love them, and considers them part of the family - whenever we go on holiday he tells me he misses them, and he's still not quite sure why they don't come with us. But that's not why I am surprised by his grief. I'm surprised because it's a really big emotion, and he is allowing it to exist in his body without feeling the need to block it out or run away.

    When we first told him that Etta was poorly and wasn't going to come home, he did run away. He ran to his bedroom, and shouted, screamed, and banged things. We told him it was OK to be sad, that we were sad too, and asked him if he'd like a cuddle. He did want one, and we cuddled together on the bed, he was screwing his face up and making crying noises - although not *actually* crying this is his way of showing that he wants to. I was crying, obviously. He kept saying "I don't want Etta to die, please can she come home?" We sat for a while, just being sad together. He went off to play a bit. Then he came back, and we sat together being sad again. We explained that we were going to go and say goodbye to her, and he said he'd like to give her a kiss and say 'get well soon'.

    Eventually he went off to play again, but he kept popping back to check on me. "Oh dear Mummy, what is the matter?" he'd ask. I would say "I'm sad about Etta." Once he gave me his favourite blanket to cuddle. Another time he asked if he could get me anything, something to eat, or a drink? Then he took my water bottle downstairs and asked Husband to fill it up for me. Other times he just gave me a cuddle.

    And, do you know what? He came to the vets, he said goodbye to Etta, and he gave her a kiss. Then he went with Gran for the afternoon to give Husband and I a bit of space to say a private goodbye. And not once, for the rest of the day, did he go loopy or disregulated. (He did a bit this morning, but that's fair enough really!)

    I am a firm believer in feeling whatever you feel. I didn't try to hide my grief from Tickle yesterday, and I think that actually helped him to feel and accept his. I'm not saying that's all it takes, as I'm fairly sure he would not have reacted like this a year ago. But it does make me realise that something we are doing is making a difference. He is - slowly - learning to sit with an uncomfortable feeling and be present with it, and that is a *huge* breakthrough.

  • This morning, as usual, I was woken up by Tickle shouting at Husband. When I heard Husband start to shout back, I thought I'd better get out of bed. Tickle had thrown a toy at Husband's face (again) - though thankfully this time it was only a small one and didn't do any actual damage.

    Tickle came to sit with me in bed for a bit. He didn't like this much, which he chose to communicate to me by throwing his glasses on the floor, and then shouting at me because he couldn't see. I got back in to bed and ignored him until he'd calmed down a bit.

    We had a chat. We talked about what was worrying him - school, as it turned out, or more specifically, one boy at school who he is worried about. This particular boy actually left school at the end of the summer term, and I've spent the last few months trying to help Tickle understand that he isn't coming back 'for ever and ever'. However, it seems like it hasn't quite gone in yet, and he's still pretty anxious about whether this boy will hurt him.

    This flowed naturally in to a repeat of the conversation we usually have following an incident like this: "It's OK to be worried, but it's not OK to hurt people."

    Today, I don't quite know how it happened, but I must have phrased it slightly differently. I said "Tickle, you threw a toy at dad and it hurt him" and Tickle said "Oh! Poor dad!" as if he were completely surprised by that fact. Straight away he wanted to say sorry to dad, wanted to give him a cuddle to make him feel better. It's great that he is showing an understanding of how his actions are affecting other people; I just wish the moment of understanding would come in enough time to stop him carrying out the action in the first place..!

    When I was editing ‘Me, the Boy, and The Monster’ I actually wrote two entirely new chapters on this very subject, to incorporate some work I had just learned about, by a psychologist called Jaak Panksepp, who studied the science of emotions. Panksepp believes that the fundamental drive for human behaviour comes from emotion, rather than thought. He describes seven fundamental emotional 'systems', which will initiate particular types of behaviour when triggered. For example, I can be a bit scared of spiders, so when I see a spider my FEAR system is triggered. This makes my heart beat a bit faster, releases stress hormones, and could also produce a behavioural reaction such as calling to Husband to come and remove it. Over time, I have learned to modify the behavioural reactions to my FEAR system being triggered by a spider, sometimes even to the extent that I can catch it myself and put it outside..!

    This for me, is the key part of behavioural regulation - learning to put 'thought' in between 'emotion' and 'action'. It's not that Tickle isn't empathetic, or doesn't care that he has hurt Husband, it's that he is acting on an innate behavioural reflex, and hasn't yet learned how to engage his thinking brain in that moment.

    One of the interesting things about Panksepp's theory is that it allows us to study positive behaviours in the same way. The positive behaviour systems include SEEKING, CARE, and PLAY - which are all relatively easy to spot once you know what you're looking for. Tickle's CARE system is activating a lot at the moment; he's fascinated by babies, and whenever he sees one he wants to stroke it and kiss it. He plays with his baby dolls every day, and always tucks them up before bed. When we were going out to the park the other day he flatly refused to go anywhere until his favourite doll had a jumper on, in case it got cold. In theory, the systems that are activated most frequently are the ones that become our default 'go-to' systems, and contribute to our personality, so as well as noticing the positive behaviours I see in Tickle I can also be proactive, by involving him in activities that engage his positive emotional systems - for example exploring a new place, reading a book, or playing hide and seek could all be ways of activating the SEEKING system. Playing with dolls, looking after an animal, or helping someone with a task could activate the CARE system. This also offers an explanation of why the 'Playfulness' of PACE works so well - it activates the PLAY system at a time when the child is likely to default to FEAR.

    If you'd like to read more about this ‘Me, the Boy, and The Monster’ is released on 19th February 2019, and you can sign up to my mailing list to be notified, or pre-order it from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Me-Boy-Monster-Exploring-psychology-ebook/dp/B07M9Z9DBX/

  • The lake at Blenheim PalaceOver the Christmas holidays so far, I reckon our 'nice bits' to 'hard bits' ratio is probably about 70:30. Possibly slightly better, if you take in to account the fact that the hard bits are no where near as hard as they used to be. Last year's Christmas ratio was about 20:80 at best I reckon, and looking back at the blog from this time last year it seems T was going through a bitey phase as well. The worst we've had this holiday is hitting, and even then I think it's only been once or twice.

    Gosh, it's so weird writing that, when I think back to posts I've written in the past describing the CPV that was happening multiple times per DAY, for anything up to a couple of hours at a time.

    Some of this change can probably be put down to the simple passing of time, but there are a few quite clear things I can pick out that we have done, or are doing differently.

    1. Working on emotional regulation.

    I've added a whole chapter on this in to my book (which - HURRAH! - actually now has a release date!) because, although it's quite a slow burner in terms of seeing results, over time it has produced massive change.

    The key to this is consistency. And repetition. Lots of repetition. School are completely on board with this and have been helping out too - they have a visual chart for Tickle where he can select symbols for how he is feeling, and symbols to represent calming activities that he thinks will help. It has taken a lot of patience and reinforcement from staff, but at the last parents' evening his teacher told me that Tickle had spontaneously gone up to the chart (which hangs within reach in a prominent place in the classroom) and pointed at the 'sad' feeling. And, he had done this MID-MELTDOWN. He had been able to override the panic systems in his body for long enough to realise he needed help, work out how to communicate this to an adult, and actually go and communicate it. All whilst being triggered in a fight-flight state, and running around the classroom.

    In case you're still unclear on this, that is nothing short of staggering.

    Other ways we try to encourage emotional regulation at home include affect matching - mirroring the outwards appearance of Tickle's emotions, without the emotional energy. So for example, if he's shouting at me, then I might say in quite a loud voice "Gosh! You sound very cross!" - imitating the pattern of his speech, and the emphasis he has placed on words. It's important to understand the distinction here, as I'm not talking about copying what he's saying, or imitating him to try and make him laugh, I'm talking about matching his speech patterns and body language, but without feeling the emotion myself. If I meet his anger with anger of my own, that inflames things, but if I meet his anger with words that show I understand what he's feeling, and reinforce this with my tone of voice and facial expression, then he knows I understand what he's feeling. Sometimes we do this quite naturally with babies and toddlers, without even realise what it is we're doing. It's a way of reflecting those feelings back to the child in a safe way, without emotion or heat, so they can observe and understand what is going on. When they're feeling and emotion, they're too close, too involved to be able to be reflective about it, but when we show back to them what they are expressing to us, then they can observe it, and think about it from a detached point of view.

    Anyway. This is one of my favourite subjects, and I'm getting a bit carried away - you'll just have to read it in the book! ;)

    2. Prioritising Tickle over other family members

    Emotional regulation has been a long term goal, but this was something we did this holiday which took no effort and made a huge difference. There's often quite a lot of pressure, especially at Christmas, to do 'traditional' family things. Go and see relatives, play games, spend time with extended family and friends. This year was the biggest we've ever done, as my dad and stepmum were visiting for Christmas, in addition to our 'normal' Christmas spent with my mum, grandpa, and brother.

    I love my family very much, and I'm very aware that grandpa is getting old and probably doesn't have that many more Christmas' in him. I know my mum has to cope with feeding a lot of people, who are all arriving at various times, and that she really needs to plan out how that's going to work. My dad made the trip up specially, and this was the first Christmas I've spent with him in at least two decades.

    BUT. I have to be realistic about what Tickle can manage. (And Fairy too, if I'm honest.) And seeing as he's got so good at telling us how he's feeling, I've really got to listen to him. So instead of going over to mum's for dinner on Christmas Eve, I completely changed all the plans last minute and announced we were only going for lunch. Both kids are happier at home in the evenings, and as it turned out, Tickle was very overwhelmed by all the extra people at Gran's house, and really would not have coped with that whilst hungry and tired. Then on Christmas Day, when we'd usually stay for dinner and in to the evening a bit, we went home around 4pm. There was a bit of a meltdown when we got there, but nothing compared to what would have come out if we'd insisted on staying for dinner.

    At the end of the day, the rest of us are adults, and we ought to be able to manage our emotions by now. Tickle is still learning. Yes, my mum probably felt a bit disappointed that we went home, but she'll cope. (She is very supportive about all of this in any case, so there was no issue in that sense.)

    3. Sensory stockings

    This is such a silly, little thing that I feel a bit ridiculous even saying it, as we ought to have been doing this for years! Sometimes the obvious things just don't occur to you though, do they?!

    This year, I put a lot of sensory toys in the kids' stockings, and actively encouraged them to use them to regulate throughout the day. Disclaimer: this wouldn't have worked as well with T if we hadn't done the groundwork in (1) above.

    The biggest success was this light stick. Tickle hasn't really done much visual sensory stuff before, but he loved it. I've just bought two more to keep as back ups. The other big hit was a scented soft toy rabbit. Deep breaths are one thing that does work pretty well with T and the nice smell of the rabbit really encouraged that behaviour. We also had squeezy things, squishy things, chewy things, and of course, lots of chocolate! The squishies got broken fairly quickly, so I have purchased these to try instead. I'll let you know how we get on!

    And that's it. Christmas is over, so now we're just on 'holiday' levels of disregulation, without the added Christmas bonus. A year ago, I used to dread school holidays. They're still hard work, but the thought of them no longer makes me want to cry, and I think that's progress..!

© 2019 Cat McGill