By Shari McMinn
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 ESV)
Regrettably, I admit to throwing manure at my daughter that day ….
She was out-of-control, and frankly, so was I. It was possibly my worst parenting moment, seared in my brain so I will never forget. Despite our steady routine, good nutrition, kind parenting, and unending patience, my child was extremely angry. She was so difficult for my husband and the other children to deal with inside the house that I escorted her outside with me.
She was smart as can be, but emotionally delayed. A traumatic past overwhelmed her emotions just about every day. Typically, physical work would calm her down. Outside landscaping work was especially soothing to her as she flourished with fresh air and sunshine. In desperation that morning, I guided her to one of our vegetable gardens, so together we could spread “barnyard dressing.” Unfortunately, the beautiful spring day did not help her disposition. She kept raging through the work — cussing, screaming, spitting, then throwing manure at me. Standing 5’8”, my lean, athletic 14-year-old had a very good aim!
Not to be outdone, I threw some back at her. She was shocked! Then, ever so slowly, she grinned momentarily. She returned to her shoveling. We continued to work together for another couple of hours. She didn’t say much and neither did I. When we finished, I thanked her for helping me and we talked about the seeds we would plant in a few weeks. Gardening was my solace, and it was one of hers as well. In that moment of high emotions, God’s grace shone through. Though I don’t suggest my behavior as one to replicate, I am grateful for the many outlets (like gardening) that God has made for us as we seek to help calm our sometimes out-of-control children.
Raising unique children has its blessings and frustrations. Sometimes, our kids have keen brains for academics, but their emotional self-control is significantly delayed. We may have a child who appears high-functioning to others, yet we know the daily effort we put in to just help them survive. It is a battle that wears us down. On our worst days, we don’t have enough self-control ourselves to help them regain theirs. Sometimes their raging brain will not allow processing, so our teaching doesn’t stick. Only when they are calm can they process information and retain facts. So, calmness is crucial to their learning.
One way we can help bring about calm is by learning to empathize with them when they are upset. Sitting with them and being “in the moment” helps them calm down, though it is often hard to take the time to do so. Comfort them by sitting close while they cry, even scream. Regulate your breathing to match theirs — fast at first, then slow yours down so theirs will also slow, eventually.
Once they are no longer raging, redirecting our children to their “coping skills” is far better than becoming dysregulated ourselves, with angry emotions, which we can express through lecturing, yelling, etc. Remaining gentle and calm will go a long way to helping our out-of-control child to regain self-control.
When our kids are young, it is helpful to train them to find comfort in simple things. Singing hymns and nursery songs with us as we take a walk or do chores side-by-side, curling up with us so we can read aloud to them, covering themselves with their special blanket, or dragging around their favorite stuffed animal are important comfort “go-to’s” for them. We have to train them to do this from day one, because they won’t know how to do these things for themselves. If they can learn positive calming skills when young, they can tap into them as they grow older to diffuse their more reactive, negative emotions.
When children are elementary age, we can train them to go to their comfort zone: their bedroom, a comfy sofa, a quiet reading nook, or an outside play gym. Here they can learn to spend their hours of free time — free time, along with a special place can help them regulate. When they are regulated, they can then focus on life tasks such as chores and schoolwork. Make sure you provide plenty of creative opportunities to soothe their souls, such as through audiobooks, building sets, crafts, creative play costumes, and a well-stocked sandbox, among other ideas suited to your family and home.
For ‘tweens and teens, it is important to offer other soul-soothing opportunities such as art instruction, music lessons, participating in recreational sports, and even a few various group activities at your home where they can broaden their interests and skill sets. You might have to try several before finding the right fit for their needs.
Every child, hopefully, has some personal interests that can become their default coping skills. I believe God gives each of us something that will bring calm when we are upset beyond functioning. Do you know what coping skills your child possesses that you can tap into? Observe them closely when they are calm and joyful. Are they focused on animals, art, music, playing, reading? Although screens can seem soothing, they become an addictive battleground and shut down other valuable brain functions. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting screen time to two hours/day.
So, what can you cultivate in your children as a remedy for out-of-control behavior? Here are a few suggestions to get you thinking:
- Infants and toddlers: hold them close in your arms with their favorite “lovie” (blanket, stuffed animal, etc.) and softly sing to them; read to them frequently throughout the day.
- Preschool/Elementary: sit and color with them or build with Legos; invite them to help you do something.
- ‘Tweens: appropriate music with headphones on while they read or paint; crafting or cooking with you, then on their own as they become more competent.
- Teens: take a walk with them, have them care for and be with animals, exercise with a video, do chores together.
I suggest all of the above should be done without speaking — unless they initiate it. Then, if they do, keep the conversation focused on their answers to your open-ended questions. It’s important to just spend positive time with them. You know what they like, what brings them joy, what is peaceful to them — provide that without judgement.
After calm has been regained, and a peaceful relationship restored, gently bring up the subject of their raging. Help them put words to what they were feeling before, during, and after. Truly, they might not even know. Unique children are often less in touch with their feelings than a typical kid. We need to help them learn how to express with words their negative feelings in a safe way. An emotions chart found on the internet, like this one, can help them name their feelings more than just “mad” or “angry”: crushed, frustrated, jealous, rejected, etc. Help them increase their vocabulary with “feeling” words. Help them by putting words to their actions with statements like, “I see that you are frustrated that your brother gets to go and you don’t. What can you and I do together for fun right now?”
Our children need us to teach them how to cope with the difficulties of life. Being there and walking through the trials with them will eventually pay off. It takes time. It takes giving up what we would rather be doing. But, if we can help them learn to cope with the negative things in life, and have hope in Christ for their future, by God’s grace they’ll succeed. And we will have done well our job of parenting them.
Thanks for taking time to read this month’s Unique Learners blog post. I appreciate those who were able to attend the Rocky Mountain Homeschool Conference last week. It was a real pleasure to meet some of you at the “Raising Special Needs Children” Conversation Cafe discussion. My July blog post will share some of the take-aways we discussed there, including sin and forgiveness.