I’ve written before about how my son’s socialization challenges led us to have him evaluated by a team of child psychologists. (You can find out more about why, what that means, and how it’s felt.) The process seemed painstaking and slow for a few weeks, but once we met with the New York City Department of Education to discuss the results, things moved quickly. And, I’m happy to report, so have the positive benefits of the help we’ve received.
The underlying issue for Felix seems to be anxiety. Changes to the usual routines, separation from either my wife and me or an adult that he’s come to trust, dealing with a child who doesn’t listen to him, being unable to control every moment by calling the shots, getting reprimanded for misbehavior — all of these circumstances, challenging for any kid, can bring about tantrums of epic-proportion or frustration so high that it leads to violence. Or, at least, it did. With the help of his Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT) — a one-on-one helper who is by his side about half the time that he’s in school each week — and his play therapist, we’ve learned some techniques that soothe Felix’s intense emotions. (Most children learn self-soothing techniques on their own, but Felix has struggled with this.)
Sure, there are bad moments of flailing about, whining and teeth-gnashing, and still, occasionally, nasty scratching, punching, and (most recently) spitting. But instead of spiraling into utter chaos, Felix manages to shake it off and bring himself back from the edge, so that if he has a bad morning in school it doesn’t mean he’ll also have a bad afternoon. This is a huge improvement from those days when he’d wake up crying and frustrated and go to bed wailing and angry, and every adult that he spent time with felt about ready to toss the kid out the window at some point.
How does he do it? Here are four techniques that work especially well for him:
1. Smell the flowers / Blow on the soup
Adults know this as taking deep, calming breaths. The thing is, that sounds utterly boring to a kid, and what’s more, once a kid figures out that they get attention by throwing a fit then there’s not much incentive to stop. I mean, he’s getting what he wants by having a tantrum, right? Even if we’re not caving to his demands, he’s at least stopping the show and forcing us to pay attention to him.
Asking him to smell the flowers (breath in through his nose) and blow on the soup (exhale out of his mouth) makes it more like a game. Plus, we do it with him, so he still has our attention. Only now instead of having it in a bad way, we’re all breathing and being still together, which is a lovely thing. Then we can try to talk out his frustrations, or get on with his day, or whatever the case may be.
2. Taking aggression out on something
I used to wonder if any aggression was bad, like if he was punching a pillow then he’d likely punch me as well. Now I see that’s not the case. Felix is no dummy: he knows pillows don’t have any feelings. So we encourage him to hit and scream into them, and to whack the couch, and you know what? It works. Sometimes his feelings are so big he has to do something physical with them, and hitting inanimate objects gives him an appropriate outlet.
Squeeze balls help as well. Just the other day he was annoyed when a game came to an end, and he said, “I feel like I want to hit you.” Instead, he spent some time with his squeeze ball and no fists were thrown.
3. Bear hugs and head holds
If you saw the HBO documentary about the brilliant autistic Temple Grandin, then you know that a tight squeeze helps both people and animals feel steady and unafraid. The same works for Felix when he’s having a tantrum. We used to think that his wanting to hug us roughly was a form of aggression, and sometimes it is. But mostly, he needs a very strong grip to help balance his nerves.
We also just learned how to place our hands on either side of his head and apply pressure. Especially when he is getting overloaded with emotions, and sensations — noise and lots of movement tend to agitate him — a head hold prevents him from getting overwhelmed. Also, if we’re at home, piling up blankets so that he can burrow inside helps, and it doesn’t require us to be there with him at every moment.
4. Going on a walk
While in school, his SEIT or one of his teachers takes Felix on little walks outside of the classroom when things get to be too much, or they sense he’s getting agitated, over-excited, or nervous. At home, he runs around the dining room table or tramps about the living room. In both settings this activity is another release valve, and helps him get a handle on himself before his emotions run off with him. We’re nervous as to whether he’ll be able to keep this up when he goes to kindergarten, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, it’s nice to know that stretching the legs helps.
I’ve struggled with uncontrollable anxiety too, but I’ve never directed it outward in the way my son does. Instead, I curl inward into a tight little ball. In some ways, I admire how he gets his negative feelings out into the open, though this makes him a pretty intense personality to be around. These coping mechanisms are making it a little easier to interact with him, and they’ve given him a greater sense of confidence that his emotions are going to overwhelm him. I know from my own anxiety attacks that fear compounds the bad feelings, so that not only do you feel nervous, but you’re scared that your nervousness will become so deep its impossible to swim up from its cold grasp. These techniques are like a rope we can all hang onto, so that we’re not pulled under by the chaos.
Finally, after a few years of wondering whether our little guy would ever be able to play independently on his own or with his peers, there’s hope.