Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kind and Gentle

Yesterday when Chris picked Gwen up from her caregiver's house, he was told that Gwen's behaviour had been significantly bad. He ended up talking with the caregiver for a good fifteen minutes to hear all about Gwen's day, which included:
- not listening/obeying the caregiver
- drawing all over her playmates' pictures even when they asked her to stop
- acting out when her playmates then didn't want to play with her
- grabbing toys away from other children
- LYING DOWN on one of the other kids and not getting up even though the other kid was crying
- running full-tilt into another kid and knocking her down

The caregiver suggested that we emphasize listening to her playmates, in addition to listening to adults. Her behaviour didn't improve at that point: she even hit Chris in the face when he tried to take her out of the car.

I feel worried and discouraged about this, because it's such a struggle to get through to her with her incredibly selective listening skills. Moreover, she has no empathy at all - cognitively, she just doesn't get it. I ask, "Do you think your friend felt sad when you knocked her down?" and she replies, "Yup," with no emotion whatsoever. She truly doesn't grasp that her friend is a person just like she is, and that her emotions are just as valid.

Speaking of Gwen's emotions, she is definitely a turbulent girl and always has been. Lately this takes the form of extreme crying and shrieking fits that she can't come down from. She will be nearly hysterical crying and saying, "Mama, help me calm down!" Her emotions are beyond her control and that scares her, which makes the whole process worse. With my help (she will rarely accept Chris's ... more on that in another post) she will get herself somewhat calmed down for a moment, but immediately breaks down agan. Over and over.

So last night when I tucked Gwen into bed, I told her a special story. This, I have noticed, is one of the few times I can really connect with her and feel that she is really hearing me.

"Once upon a time, there was a little girl ..." and she fills in, "named Gwen!" "She had a grouchy, grumpy day. She didn't play nicely with her friends. She took their drawings and drew on them. She grabbed their toys away from them. Her friends didn't want to play with her because she wasn't kind or gentle with them. She wouldn't listen to them, and she even hurt them."

Gwen's eyes, at this point, were huge and even starting to fill with tears. Her voice was shaky as she said, "Mama, that story was a little bit scary!" It was certainly a different response from our earlier conversation where I'd tried to seek out empathy for her friend's hurt feelings.

"Just wait, Gwen, there's more to the story. Then Gwen came home with her Mama and Dada. She was still grouchy. She wouldn't listen to Mama and Dada. She shouted at them. She wouldn't do as they asked her to. She even hit Dada in the face.

"Then Gwen went to bed. She cuddled up with her bunny and her lambie. She snuggled down under her blankets. And just as she was about to fall asleep, she heard a noise. She opened her eyes to see ... The Magical Ballerina Fairy Princess!"

(This is a character who often makes appearances in our bedtime stories. For example, I have often told the story of how the MBFP gave Gwen her bed, which is magical and helps her have a good sleep and wonderful dreams. The MBFP, she is a MIRACLE WORKER.)

"She was so BEAUTIFUL!" Gwen interjected. Her eyes had lit up as if she really could see the MBFP in her room.

"The Magical Ballerina Fairy Princess said to Gwen, 'I hear you didn't have a very good day today.' And Gwen said, 'No. I was grouchy and angry and mad!' 'Well,' said the Magical Ballerina Fairy Princess, 'I have something very important to tell you. It's always okay for you to feel angry, or grouchy, or mad, or sad, or any way that you feel. But no matter how you feel, you always need to be kind and gentle to your friends, no matter what. And if you don't feel like you can be kind and gentle with your friends, then you need to say, 'I need some alone time,' and cuddle up with your lambie, and calm down until you feel ready to be kind and gentle to everyone.' And Gwen said, 'Okay, Magical Ballerina Fairy Princess, I think I can do that.'

"And then Gwen went to sleep. And the next day, Gwen got up and she was cheerful with her Mama and Dada. And she listened to them and did what they asked her to do. And then she went to daycare and played with her friends. She was kind and gentle with them and her friends were so happy to play with her. They shared toys with each other and played together and had such a fun and wonderful day. Sometimes, Gwen felt mad or angry or sad or upset, and when she did, she said 'I need some alone time,' and she cuddled with her lambie until she felt better.

"Then Gwen came home with Mama and Dada. She listened to them and did what they asked her to do. She was kind and gentle with them. They read stories together and did puzzles and had a yummy dinner. Gwen even got to help make dinner! Everyone had a really nice evening together. THE END."

I told Chris about the phrases and strategies that I had emphasized, and asked him to pass that on to the caregiver so we can be consistent. I don't know yet how successful this will be. Gwen was very responsive during the story, which gives me hope, and this morning I reiterated the concepts and she voluntarily practiced saying "I need some alone time," and removing herself. We'll see how she is at daycare today.

If anyone has any other suggestions or strategies or resources, I'm very open to advice on this topic!


Anonymous said...

WE like the book "Today I feel silly" which goes through a bunch of emotions.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in Gwen's response that the story of her behaviour at daycare is scary. I wonder if going over the behaviors without being IN the situation caused Gwen to look at it differently, or if in the moment she was also scared. How might either of those scenarios affect her behaviour or yours? What might Gwen be trying to achieve by some of this behavior? Power, attention, security, knowledge of the consequences, is it out of curiosity? Why might she think it is effective? No-one can really be sure, but thinking about the possibilities gives you a greater chance of understanding Gwen's experience and helping her move forward.

When I'm working with children on empathy, I try to use observations rather than questions, as I find (similar to you & Gwen) that the childen just answer the question in the manner they THINK you want, and may not actually reflect on the situation, which is what you DO want. (well, it's what I want: a difference in motivation is a healthier way to change behaviour than by enforcing rules over the long term. Not that rules are bad: they keep us safe and are a great starting point.)

Typically, this would include me comforting both the "agressor" and the "victim" in the situation, since I believe that all children experience both roles and are stressed in both. I would first point out the hurts and motivations of one child "Sam is crying, do you see the tears? It hurt Sam's feelings when you coloured on his picture. He had a plan for his picture already." After that, I think it's important to acknowledge the motivation of the other child as well, which is often good but misguided. "Sandy wanted to get your attention and work together on a project. She didn't realise you had a plan or that starting work on your paper would upset you." I might talk through some possible solutions if the children are beginners at co-operative probem solving "If you want to work together, you might try..." Sometimes the children accept the new information and come up with a solution, sometimes they just part ways. I don't put any judgement on either party.

I know it's not always this easy, because perhaps Sandy's intentions weren't so honourable or she wasn't so unaware of the consequences. And then how do you acknowledge the child's need and find a positive outlet? Of course in your case, you won't always be there when Gwen is interacting with others. And also I realise that the same kind of incidents come up over and over again, which is tiring for everybody and makes you wonder if you're doing ANYTHING right. But you are.

If Gwen can't handle the emotional side of reflecting on her behaviour and empathy in the heat of the moment, that's ok. It seems to me that in the bedtime story you've found a time when she's open to hearing alternate ways of experiencing the world.

I encourage you to also spend a few minutes here & there noticing facial expressions of strangers and linking them to behavior when you're out. That way, it's not about Gwen, and she can leave out her own mixed feelings while coming to terms with a variety of situations and learn about what you think are appropriate solutions. You might have to interrupt Gwen, if she's very inwards focussed, or you may find opportunities when she stops doing what she's doing and stares at others in an awkward situation as though trying to make sense of it. It's tricky, because in our culture it's somewhat taboo to experience, watch, or talk about "negative" feelings and struggle (think about how few parents enjoy taking a screaming child out in public): happiness and success are much prefered. But it's tricky for Gwen too!

Okay, enough rambling from me, and I hope this is a helpful place to start rather than a rant that makes you feel bad.


Anonymous said...

You are such a good mom

Amberism said...

I'm going to look up that book.

My kids have done all that, too. I never thought to tell a story which is a very good idea. My approach is basically the same by letting them know they have a right to their feelings, but that everyone else in the room has rights too (right not to be hit, the right not to have their stuff wrecked, the right not to have things taken from them, etc). I even say they have a right to a temper tantrum, but I have a right not to have to listen to it, so they have to go upstairs, or I will take them up there.

Empathy is a learned skill, and I think it "clicks" sometime around 4? Don't quote me on that, I'm doing that by memory, but I think that is about where it's at.

The perk I have is that a lot of the experimenting with behaviour happens more often at home with their siblings so that when they get to preschool, they've had a chance to try all this out on family (who are more forgiving) so they come across as pretty mild-mannered in school. At least, Callum does. We'll see about Claire...

To summarize, I have been there and I think the story and time alone with lambie is a brilliant idea!

Kat said...

You are a fantastic mom Laura. Kisses.

Surprised Suburban Wife said...

Oh my lord this is exactly what we are going through with Megan. Exactly. I have no solution other than (a) losing your temper during one of the out of control meltdowns won't work and (b) this too shall pass. Empathy is hard, but so far, controlling one's emotions in the heat of the moment is the hardest for our three year old.


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