© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

This a technique that can be used for all children, but it is especially helpful in dealing with children who have a “short fuse.”  Such children may be mentally inflexible to start with, and therefore have difficulty managing uncomfortable feelings.  They may have a tendency to escalate quickly or explosively into blind rage, where they are neither consolable or amenable to conventional problem-solving.

First, adults need to know what is actually happening.  The child approaches or becomes engulfed in what is called “Fight or Flight” behavior.  Some children freeze, and some children freeze first and then explode.  Some children bolt (flee frantically and quickly with no real destination in mind), climb, or seek tight places like closets or shelves.

The phenomenon is called “Fight [Freeze] or Flight” (FFoF) because it is an adaptation to ‘threat to survival’ circumstances.  Most vertebrate animals have some sort of this response, depending on species.  In humans, it is a state where the emotional parts of the brain take over and conscious thinking is temporarily disabled.

Think of how cats and dogs react to sudden events.  Cats will run immediately.  Their prime response is to flee.  They will fight only if trapped, or if engaged in territorial behavior.  If they flee, they will go only so far so they can look back and appraise the threat.  They may come back if they determine that whatever it is that happened was not actually a threat, and only if they’re interested.

Dogs bark and growl and bear their teeth.  They tend to dig in and fight.  They’ll sniff the air a little more, and once they are satisfied that whatever it is that happened was not actually a threat, they usually come back to check it out further.  Dogs have to know.

We aren’t much different.  Emotional (mammal) parts of our brain (amygdalae; basal ganglia; reticular activating system) operate on much simpler and quicker circuits than conscious thinking.  They react in stimulus-response fashion to very crude categories (threat/not a threat; food/not food; familiar/ unfamiliar).[1]  These parts of the brain make quick, rough assessments, and leave it to the more thickly wired and slower cerebral cortex (that handles thought, language and consciousness) for more fine tuned appraisal of what is going on.  The speed of the emotional brain versus the timely mental computations of the cerebral cortex can mean life or death.[2]  This is why when you hear a sudden noise, you recoil reflexively – before you have a chance to figure out whether you stepped on a stick or a snake.

When danger may be imminent, the job of the amygdalae (there is an amygdala on both sides of the brain) is to make a quick and crude assessment of threat, and once they detect threat, they send a chemical signal to the rest of the body to put it in ‘survival-mode.’  This sets into motion a chain of events that go in this order:

  1. Activate the sympathetic nervous response (this is a set of neural pathways or circuits that respond to alarm and…
  2. Heart and breathing rates increase
  3. Blood flow reroutes to the emotional parts of the brain and away from the thinking parts of the brain – there is very limited planning, deciding.  “Thinking” is largely confined to the immediate “here and now”
  4. Blood flow leaves the gut and goes to the arms and legs (the feeling of “butterflies in the stomach)
  5. We fight, freeze and/or run
  6. Other parts of the brain interpret the above events as a “feeling” or perception of these subconscious events
  7. We make a finer appraisal and attempt to remember and evaluate, only after the threat has passed.

In survival terms, this is very adaptive under real “life or health-endangering” circumstances.  When being chased by a pack of wolves, it is not good to think about your choices.  It is also not a good idea to look around and think about all of the things going on at the time (the sun is shining, the birds are singing, there’s soup on the stove…).  By that time, you’re dead.  It’s actually a better idea just to flail and run.

Some people have a tendency to go into FFoF states too easily.  This is usually the result of a highly reactive sympathetic nervous system (due to a tendency to over-register sensory stimuli; easily overloaded sensory systems), fear-conditioning (coming to associate certain events with danger after either repeated stress or traumatic experience), a very sensitive startle-response; a tendency to over-appraise threat (equate negative feelings such as frustration or disappointment as threats), or a correspondent poorly functioning parasympathetic nervous response (pathways that signal the body to calm down, that everything is OK – to be soothed), or, any combination or all of the above.  These are the people that need special ways of helping them handle their responses to stress.

Children who have a history of sensory sensitivities or problems getting their sensory needs met early in infancy (or even in the womb) had trouble developing and/or maintaining an even-tempered, homeostatic state as infants.  These child are often described as “difficult,” “difficult to soothe,” “colicky”[3] or “temperamental” among other terms.  Often, months or even years can go by before anyone figures out what is exactly distressing the baby.  Strange things can cause distress: the hum of a fluorescent light; a fan or refrigerator motor; the shimmering of leaves or light coming through the blinds; too many people talking – or even any talking; lying on one’s back or being picked up or touched – literally anything.  Even professionals may have great difficulty figuring out what the problem is or what to do about it.

Two things happen.  First, the child experiences prolonged periods of unresolved distress, at a time (a critical period) when the brain is “calibrating” on the environment that it expects to deal with for the rest of the life span.  Genes are turning on and off during this period, based on what the brain tries to do to regulate itself and achieve homeostasis.  Some never really do, and agitation and irritability, or on the other end, apathy and disinterest,[4] become “default” states or emotional “setting points.”

These later on become psychological and emotional predispositions or “traits” that as development progresses can become worse or more difficult to change if not treated correctly.  Emotion regulation is among the earliest of wiring foundations in development, beginning before birth, and it affects the development of all subsequent sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive brain systems.

The second thing that often happens, happens to the parents.  Since it is so hard to please or soothe these infants, they can experience a sense of failure, doubt, and even depression.

In evolutionary terms, the sound of a baby crying is supposed to be punishing to adults.[5]  Punishment, by definition is meant to motivate a person to behave in ways that avoid, remove, or escape from the punishment.  This may be a sterile and clinical explanation, as what parents do, they do out of love and commitment.  They want to soothe and they love to soothe.  It is a very rewarding role for a parent to play when a baby responds, and the soothing process is the foundation for emotional bonding and trust between parent and child, or child and world.  It is really hurtful emotionally to not be able to help your baby.

Keep in mind, that the actions parents take to soothe an infant are sensory: they coo or talk (sound); they approach and give empathic looks (complex visual stimuli); they pick the baby up and bounce her (vestibular input); they touch and caress (tactile input), etc.  For the infant whose sensory systems have the integrity, this additional input is beneficial and results in activating the infant’s parasympathetic nervous system).  The baby calms down, and the parent-child bond is the stronger for it.  Also, the child develops the foundations for healthy trust and interdependence with the world and relationships.

But some babies have sensory nervous systems that cannot be helped by normal means.  Any additional sensory input potentially aggravates the child further and the child cries louder and harder when the parent tries to help.  The baby’s system is already overloaded and the additional input explodes them.  The parent is often baffled, because for one, he or she often doesn’t know what is wrong or exactly what it is that is bothering the baby and, and two, even if he or she does know, they do not know how to help – or this is no way to help.

Unless parents have other children with whom they’ve had success, they can blame themselves and lose confidence in their parenting abilities.  This is a feeling of loss and a potential source of depression.

Living with a child who cries continuously, doesn’t sleep, can’t be soothed, etc. is like continuous punishment.  There is potential for “learned helplessness.”  “Learned helplessness” is a phenomenon that occurs when punishment is applied in a way that cannot be avoided or escaped and that goes on and on.  The original studies were done on animals, and it isn’t necessary to go into how they discovered this phenomenon, but the studies have been replicated over and over.  What happens is that the animal realizes there is no escape and just stops trying.  They curl up into a ball and focus on coping.

We know that this occurs in humans as well.  It happens to battered spouses; tortured prisoners, and parents of children who cannot stop crying.

“Learned helplessness” is the chronic effect.  Another potential effect on parents is “traumatic stress.”  This is the acute effect.  I am careful not to use the term “Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome” because very often, this goes on for years or is still occurring – so there’s really nothing “post-” about it.  These parents feel as if they’re walking on egg shells around their children.  The most minor of irritations can set the child off, and no matter what the parents say or do – it only seems to aggravate the child further.  It is a virtual replay of infancy – only now, the problems occur with the frustrations of daily life and routine (the problems may still be sensory such as problems with wearing fabrics, washing hair, brushing teeth, etc.), or expressed as low toleration for frustration, impatience, impulsiveness and/or rigidity and behavioral inflexibility.  Instead of trying to help their children by picking them up and bouncing them, parents are trying to help their children with words and logical problem-solving – and they find that that has the same effect – it only aggravates the child more.  Not much has really changed.

As mentioned, some children go into (FFoF) states too easily and too quickly, leaving little time for preventing it or heading it off, and they have trouble calming down.  Neurologically, what has happened is that genes were turned on in a critical period through the experience of repeated episodes of prolonged and/or unresolved emotional distress.  The brain then became “entrained” (I.e. learned) to make the progression from stimulus to FFoF very quick.  Thinking or conscious assessment of threat is often bypassed altogether.

What these children have in common is that their behavior – the reason you came to see me, represents their way of avoiding the FFoF response.  For some, the adaptation is to argue, become defensive, scream, and most importantly – to go into “output only” mode, where their behavior no longer seems to respond to input, and to avoid uncertainty.  That is why their behavior feels coercive, intimidating, manipulative, and controlling.  It feels that way because it is.  These children are often described as inflexible, oppositional, defiant, moody, and they may become diagnosed with “Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD),”[6] “Childhood Bipolar Disorder” or “Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder,”[7] “Autism Spectrum Disorder,” “Anxiety Disorder,” “Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD).”  Schools may refer to them as “Emotionally Disturbed,” which is not a medical term.  When they cannot avoid it through their controlling ways, they go into FFoF behavior.

The Association Between the Startle Reaction and Rigid or FFoF Behaviors

For those children whose problem evolved from early sensory dysfunction, or they have Autism Spectrum Disorders or Asperger’s Syndrome, or they have a mood regulation disorder as a result of chronic sensory dysfunction and frequent and prolonged episodes of unresolved distress – there is often a very problematic association with the “startle reaction.”  We experience a “startle reaction” with a sudden noise, flash of light, the appearance of something sudden and unexpected, etc.  I’ve already explained how the amygdale sound the alarm and how subsequent cognitive assessment tells the mind and body to either go into FFoF or to calm down.

These children, being wary and defensive in their environments, have not spent the number of hours calmly and interestedly observing patterns and behavior of objects, events, or people required to be able to predict certain things.  These children often over-react or dislike very much when other people laugh, clap, or when crowds react when their team scores a point, etc.  This is because 1) startle reactions result in a normal adrenaline response – but for such children, the adrenaline response is “ungated” and can’t be turned off, further resulting in a more catastrophic emotional and behavioral reaction, and 2) they do not understand the patterns and therefore do not anticipate the social events that lead people to laugh, clap or cheer.  We can anticipate a burst of laughter following something funny, but if you don’t understand the humor, you can’t.  We can anticipate a burst of clapping because someone did something “clap-worthy,” and we can anticipate cheering when we understand the game and have been following the events.

Tantrums v. Meltdowns: Meltdowns represent total succumbing to Fight, Freeze or Flight behavior.  A meltdown is a catastrophic reaction to stress where the individual loses conscious control over his or her behavior.  The person becomes “disorganized.”  The emotion is usually rage or overwhelming fear.  There may be some short term intentional behavior, but there is a marked absence of sequential thinking (thinking about consequences).  Characteristic of flight, freeze or flight states, thinking is almost exclusively in the very immediate here and now.  Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child,” calls the state “vapor lock.”

Sometimes, the person can stop on a dime if they get what they want, or some bigger threat comes along (the police show up), but often there is a slow and long duration calming down.  Agitation can linger a long time, and some may have very unusual peripheral nervous system (sympathetic + parasympathetic) responses where rage can go on for an hour or longer.

More often though, thinking and actions take on a ballistic nature.  That is, once launched, the behavioral action stream can no longer respond to input.  Like a bullet, the behavior does not respond to directions – it just keeps going until something stops it or it just loses energy.  Trying to stop the behavior feels like stopping a freight train.  Your efforts to help often escalate the behavior.  Trying to soothe or calm the person can feel like stopping a ship.  This may be due to an overactive sympathetic response, or an inadequate parasympathetic response or both.

There can be a wild-fire, seizure-like quality to it as well.  That is, it starts and cannot be stopped until the chain reaction just burns out or runs out of fuel.  This is why Psychiatrists often medicate people who have mood disorders and experience explosive behavior with anti-seizure medications such as Trileptal, Lamictal, Depakote, etc.

Tantrums on the other hand are deliberate acts of coercive behavior.  They respond to what behaviorists call “Negative Reinforcement.”  That is, removing the demand or limit makes the next tantrum more likely.  So if your child throws a tantrum because you asked her to take her plate to the sink, and you respond by doing it for her and not asking her again, you’ve made it more likely she will tantrum again to control demands or limits.

People have more mental control during tantrums than they do in meltdowns.  They are capable of thinking of consequences.  In fact, they tantrum to produce the consequences they want.  This is different from a meltdown, where the after effects often include shame, embarrassment, guilt, and broken relationships (if not broken toys, computers and other things the person values).

Three-step Model

This model of intervention minimizes the sympathetic response by showing concern and empathy rather than meeting threat with threat.  Also, the focus is on reducing demands on mental processing while the child is in the throes of the Fight, Freeze or Flight reaction.

Show Concern: Slightly elevated, concerned and caring tone: “Are you OK?  What happened?”  He’ll scream and vent and be irrational, blaming, etc.  We don’t confront his perception at that moment.

Key words, terms, concepts:

Attunement: You do not dismiss or challenge the person’s perception.  The person must see you as helping, not threatening.  The person wants to feel like you understand how important it is to them – regardless of whether the issues is or is not of real importance.

Measured: Your tone of voice conveys caring, not panic, urgency or desperation to get it to stop.

Few words: Use more tone of voice than words.  Too many words overload an already overloaded brain.

Wait: You’ve asked, “What’s wrong.”  Don’t rush or pressure the person to respond.  Allow venting.  Do not respond to idle threats, but take threats seriously (especially when dealing with violent persons).  Don’t respond to invective or vitriol (nasty comments, attempts to get your goat).

Empathy: Reflect back to him what he said by paraphrasing (not parroting).  Don’t correct him or judge. “Someone took your game?”  “Someone threw a ball at your head?”

You’re just helping her put it into words.  She must believe you are there to help, not disbelieve, dismiss, confront or judge her.  Save the reflection and evaluation for later v- perhaps much later.

Key words, terms, concepts:

“I wish:” “I wish we had more ice-cream” sounds better than “Sorry, there’s no more ice-cream.”

 

Slow everything down:  Down-shift.  Speak slower.  Use few words.  Don’t give lengthy explanations.  Insert longer pauses between your words.  Lower the volume of your voice.

Remember, you are communicating with the mammal brain.  It understands fast movement, loud voices and a lot of words as a lot of actions – which translates into – threat.

Reinforce calmness: Wait for little moments of calm before speaking.  The child wants your help – or at least a response.  While you are not unresponsive, you don’t talk or act much while the child is disorganized.  You use your responding as a “reinforcer” or reward for calmness.

Wait for little moments of organized, focused attention and regulation.  Stop speaking immediately if the person goes back to raging.

Sympathize with the Child’s Struggle: Let her know you know how hard it is.  Don’t deny her feelings.  Never dismiss, “Oh, you’re making too much of this.  It’s not that bad.”

“Oh man.”  “That’s awful.”  “You’ve been waiting so long.”  These statements communicate that you are on her side, not a threat.

This may be hard to do when your child has done something awful.  Remember, you will deal with consequences and repair/restitution later.  Not now.

Confidence: Reassure him that he will be OK.  He may think he’s going to die, but you can’t be frantic.  You have to act as if you’re confident everything will eventually be fine.  You can say, “It’s OK,” but that may not be preferable.  It may even aggravate.  It’s better to speak through your actions – or lack thereof.

You communicate this message by not acting frantically and jumping into problem solving too quickly.  Parents have a biological predisposition to act when their child send stress signals.  The child’s sympathetic nervous system activates the parent’s sympathetic nervous system (see why it’s called the “sympathetic” nervous system).  Your child’s behavior is punishing to you.  It is meant to activate you.  You have to fight the urge to take problem solving actions too quickly as they are too much for the child to process at the moment.  You can be concerned, but you have to be the one that appraises the threat realistically.
Key words, terms, concepts:

Inaction speaks louder than words: DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING, STAND THERE.  Avoid frantic, frenetic behavior of your own.  This sends the message to the mammal brain that the threat is real.

As an adult, you know that it is just that the toy store is closed.  You were too late.  It’s not a life or death situation.  You can make it look like one by running around looking for a toy store that is open.  If you run out of ketchup at 9 pm, you can make it seem like a life or death situation by running to the store to get some more.

You may be under a lot of pressure from your child.  He might insist that if you don’t get that cell phone battery at 11:30 pm right now that he will come unglued.  Maybe he will.  But it will be worse for him if you go out there and get it.  It is a very bad message to send.

DON’T JUST STAND THERE, GO ON WITH YOUR LIFE.  You never just stand there.  Avoid looking at your child too much.  This produces shame and discomfort.  It’s pressure.

Inaction really means – don’t feel like you have to fix the problem.  Don’t respond to the urgency with urgency.  Your child is feeling very urgent.  The problem has to be fixed right now.  You have to be a physical model of when things are actually urgent and when they are not.

One of the best ways of communicating that things are not urgent is to go on with routine life.  Keep going.  Talk to someone else in the family.

Don’t deprive your child of opportunities to learn to handle bad feelings: Do what you can to regulate the stress your child endures, but don’t try to create a static, hermetically sealed, entirely predictable and stress-free world.  Strategies such as visual schedules, preparing, focusing on mini-goals and other means of making a spontaneous world static can reduce anxiety, but they are not permanent solutions.  At some point, we will look at beneficial v. detrimental compensations, but for now, provide a reasonably protective environment and do what you can to help your child with processing or memory issues that make transitions difficult or new information threatening.

But when you can’t prevent something – try to reframe it as an opportunity.  An investment in emotional resilience.  Sometimes, there are no good choices.  There is no more chocolate.  We will have to wait until next Friday.  These times present an opportunity for your child to experience bad feelings in your loving, empathic arms.  This is as it should be.  But it will not be easy. It may take a while and your child’s emotional wiring may be a cause or result of extreme neurochemical imbalance.  Using the empathic, soothing approach alone may be especially difficult if this is the case.

Example Scenarios

Scenario 1: Jill is gonna die if she has to wait
Jill:       Mommy, I need another video.  Dora is over.

Concern

Mom:    OK honey, I’ll be right there, just let me give Sarah her bottle.
Jill:       But Mommy! (insistent, urgent, panicky)  Dora’s over!

Empathy

Mom:    I knowwww (the tone reflects understanding, sympathy with the child’s struggle)
Jill:       Mommy, come on, please, I want to watch another one!!! (urgency, escalating to intimidation levels; loud; stomping feet)
Mom:    (Calmly) And I can see it’s hard to wait.  I’ll be right there.
Jill:       Mommy!!!! (screaming; stomping feet; gritting her teeth)

Confidence

Mom:    Keeps on going.  Goes to refrigerator, gets the bottle, warms it up, gives it to Sarah, and then walks over to pop in the video.

Notice the paucity of words and explanations.  Too many words would be too much input for Jill to handle and escalate her.  The parent does not explain anything if she doesn’t have to.  The parent does not admonish Jill or remind her “you have to wait.”  In Jill’s mind, the word “wait” has become incendiary – so Mom avoids using the word.  Mom remains a model of calmness and stability.  This is hard to do, but you can learn to do this.
Now what if Jill didn’t just scream and pound, but instead did something dangerous?

Obviously, the parent would have to intervene – maybe even physically.  Let’s rewind the tape:
Jill:       Mommy!!!! (starts hitting Mommy or herself; knocks over chairs, starts destroying things…)
Mom:    (Physically prevents her; restrains her.) Calmly but firmly – in a “snap out of it” tone, “Alright stop.  First I feed Sarah, then video.
Jill:       (Screams, cries, falls down in a heap; hits parent’s leg)
Mom:    I’ll wait until you’re safe.  Then I’ll feed Sarah, then put in your video.
Jill:       (Screams, crying) I’m safe!!!  I’m safe!!!
(She’s still hitting; parent continues restraining her, but further words won’t help.).
Mom:    (Impassive, waits for physical agitation to subside long enough to say a few empathic words) You’re doing better now.  Soon I’ll be able to put in your video.
Jill:       (Sniveling; struggling, maybe even says, “I hate you.  I hate waiting.” Parent does not take the bait.)

Confidence

Mom:    Keeps on going.  Goes to refrigerator, gets the bottle, warms it up, gives it to Sarah, and then walks over to pop in the video.

Scenario 2: Frank is gonna die if he has to wait

Frank:   (Screaming) I hate this car.  I hate it.  I’m gonna break it.

Concern

Dad:     (Sounds concerned; elevated but not nearly as much as Frank) What’s up?
Frank:   It won’t work.  I hate it.  I hate it.  I’m gonna smash it in a million pieces.
Dad:     (Downshifting – still sounds concerned, but using himself as the pace car and slowing this down) Let me see it.

Empathy

Dad:     Oh man.  The battery’s dead.  We’ll have to get some batteries for this.
Frank:   Go to the store.  We have to go to the store.
Dad:     It’s 9:30 (pm).  It’s too late.
Frank:   No it’s naaaaaht!!! (Screaming, crying)  We can still go.  Best Buy is open ’til 10.
Dad:     (Doesn’t say anything, but gives a sympathetic look)
Frank:   But Dad, we can still go.

Confidence

Dad:     (Look of confidence that Frank will be OK)  You have two other cars that still work.
Frank:   I don’t WANT to play with those.  I want to play with this one.
Dad:     I know (sympathetically).  Good night son.  I’m going to my room.
Frank:   But Daaaaaaaaaaad!!!
Dad:     I’ll pick some up on the way home from work tomorrow.
Frank:   But Daaaaaaaaaaad!!!
Dad:     Are you alright? (Lovingly)
Frank:   No (bitterly)
Dad:     (Dad can see that Frank really is alright, but very disappointed) Good night son.

Notice that Dad did not rush to fix the problem.  He allowed his son to feel the disappointment and to learn that not getting what he wants immediately is not fatal.

If Frank had escalated as Jill did, Dad would have had to intervene similarly.

Sometimes, it’s good to have already worked out a “Have Fun [while waiting]” plan.  This is a strategy to find other things to do to help passing the time waiting to be more tolerable.  It usually consists of things the child generally likes to do and that help him or her pass the time.  Videos, books, puzzles, and such are examples.  It would be unique to the child.  Let’s rewind the tape:

Confidence

Dad:     (Look of confidence that Frank will be OK)  Sounds like a good time for your “Have fun plan.”
Frank:   I don’t wanna have fun.  I can’t have fun.  I need my batteries.
Dad:     I’ll pick some up on the way home from work tomorrow.
Frank:   But Daaaaaaaaaaad!!!
Dad:     Hmm.  OK.  Good night son.  I’m going to my room.
Frank:   But Daaaaaaaaaaad!!!
Dad:     (Checks on Frank 15 minutes later.  He’s playing with one of the other cars.)

 

Scenario 3: Evan is gonna die if he doesn’t get what he wants

(Mom and Evan are at Costco.  Evan sees that iPods are for sale.  He’s been wanting one ever since….well, this morning).

Evan:    Mom, you said I could get an iPod.
Mom:    I don’t recall that.  When did you start to want an iPod?
Evan:    Look, there they are.  $159.00.  That’s a good price.
Mom:    That’s a lot of money and we haven’t really discussed this.  You know I’m going to have to talk to Dad too.
Evan:    No you don’t.  You’re just saying that because you don’t want to buy it. (escalating)

Concern

Mom:    OK.  I can see you’re getting upset.
Evan:    You don’t understand.  I can’t play the games I want if I don’t have this new iPod.  I can’t play X and Y and Z games.

Empathy

Mom:    Wow.  I wish I could buy it.  But you know the rule.  We don’t buy things like this without discussing it first.
Evan:    That’s a stupid rule.  You knew I wanted it.  We already talked about it. (not true, but Evan really does believe it, and there’s no changing that)

Confidence

Mom:    (Waits a few beats.  She sees that Evan is struggling to maintain control, but could blow up).  We’re in Costco now.  Can you handle this?
Evan:    (Starting to scream, raises his hand at her.  She gets very quiet and speaks very slowly).  Let’s go outside to talk about it.  (She heads for the door.  Evan waits by the iPods, but realizes she means business and eventually follows her.  If he escalated further, she is willing to let that be a matter for the Store Security.)
Mom:    (Outside the store – in private) I asked you, can you handle this?
Evan:    You don’t understand.  I can’t play the games. I can’t play X and Y and Z games without the iPod Expensivo version.
Mom:    I realize that.  You know the rule.  I’m pretty sure you can handle this, but if not, that’s OK.  We’ll just go home and we can discuss it as a family.

Mom has no intention of buying the iPod.  She was more concerned about sparing Evan and herself the embarrassment of the scene Evan might have made.  She’s more confident in letting him down at home and allowing him to react there, because she would have help and there would be less stimuli than in the store.

Mom’s willingness to leave the store was an important lesson for Evan.  His intimidation tactics won’t work.  Mom wanted and needed to do some shopping, but her son’s behavior was more important.  The simple act of going outside and deferring the issue was her first and best move.

If Evan decided not to follow Mom outside, but instead decided to have a tantrum, she might have asked for help from Store Security.  This is a very difficult decision to have to make, but he is too big for her to handle physically, and if he had to experience consequences of being escorted out – or even if the police had to be called, the decision would still have been better than buying the iPod.  If she bought that iPod, she would’ve taught Evan a very dangerous lesson and bought herself certainty that this would happen again.

Temporary Supplemental Intervention

Behavior Modification/Making a Dynamic World Static/Modifying Demands

Medical/Psychiatric: Medication

Long Term

Exercise

Relaxation/Yoga/Meditation techniques

Neurofeedback

 



[1]     Ethologists refer to this as the 4 F’s of animal behavior: Fight with it; feed on it; flee from it, or mate with it.

[2]     Conscious thinking and decision-making use symbols to process information (symbols being mental representations such as memories, images, words, and whatever else you are aware of when you engage in conscious thinking).  This is way too slow when you are being attacked by a wild dog.  Because of this state of mind, many experience memory “black-outs” and cannot recall the events that when on during the state.

[3]     The term “colicky” is often a mislabel.  Colic refers to gastric distress.  This occurs often enough, especially for those children who have or have had difficulties with digesting dairy products or wheat glutens, celiac disease, or allergies that caused the gut to swell.  Diets and other metabolic interventions can work for these children.

But there are many children whose distress comes from an inability to regulate or filter sensory stimuli.  The environment impinges on one or more of the senses if the child “over-registers” or cannot filter out stimuli, or, the child cannot feel right because one or more of their senses under-registers sensory stimuli.

Whether the problem is gastric distress or sensory distress, distress is distress, and constant, unresolved distress in infancy can have deleterious effects on a child’s temperament and later development of emotion or “affect-regulation.”

[4]     Apathy or apparent disinterest or avoidance can be an adaptation to being overwhelmed.  Since infants cannot take actions to avoid stressing stimuli (e.g., cover their ears, move away, shift attention away, etc.), their brain’s only available adaptation can be to shut the sensory system down, creating some level of functional blindness or deafness or numbness.  This adaptation causes cascading effects: shutting down vision (by staring at static objects, leads to failure to visually attend and learn visual percepts from the environment such as distances, shape, line, depth, the human face, patterns of nonverbal behavior, and then later on – perspective taking and intention-reading, etc.) shutting down audition (e.g., failure to pay attention to sound, to learn to locate or identify objects by sound, the ability to shift and filter from one sound to another, the ability to develop sound percepts that lead to language understanding, etc.).  Tactile and vestibular problems can cause a child not to benefit from soothing touch or being picked up, which can later on lead to emotional problems.

[5]     Crying has a purpose – it lets the parent know that help is needed. The adult that was not bothered by their infant’s cry didn’t have grandchildren.  Crying motivates a parent to do whatever they can to make it stop.  And the sound of an infant crying is the most “activating” to the parents of that particular child.

Studies have shown that mother’s develop an almost sixth sense related to the sound of their infant’s cry.  Studies have shown that mothers can discriminate the sound of their infant from 50 or more infants crying at the same time and they can hear their baby crying when no one else can.  In my experience, mothers can tell when the infant’s “not crying” is a problem, even if the mother is in another room!  This is because during pregnancy, genes turn on in the mother’s brain that give her these abilities.

The mother is not activated in the same way to the sound of someone else’s baby crying.  Very interestingly, there is evidence that the closer the parent is genetically to the child (the closer the kin relationship), the more attuned or responsive they are to that infant, and they show the same bias towards that infant over other infants.  Also interesting, is the fact that adoption or prolonged cohabitation with a child creates the same emotional bonds and effects genetically (genes turn on or off), neurologically, and neurochemically, as with birth parents.

[6]     “Conduct Disorder” and “Reactive Attachment Disorder” are associated with oppositional defiance and similar if not more severe behavioral patterns.  However, these diagnoses are associated with pathological environments, and that is not what we are talking about here.

[7]     The concept of a “rapid cycle” of any kind is not adequately supported by research or my experience.  Generally, these children respond to environmental triggers (e.g. frustrating or angering events and conflicts) with disproportionate emotional responses.  These children can experience ups and downs in their moods through the day.  Moods set our toleration levels for annoyance, frustration, anger, over-stimulation, etc.  But these children can go from a very good mood into explosive rage quickly, based on an event.   The rate of tantrums and meltdowns correlates more highly with the presence of triggering events rather than a cycle of moods.