Sunday, December 1, 2013

Games Psychologists Play

We are sitting around the dinner table, Kevin, Sophia, and I when I suggest we play big, medium, or little problem. 

“Okay, Mom!  Sophie says enthusiastically. Give me one.”

“Big, medium or little problem—you want to wear a particular outfit one day, but you realize that it’s in the laundry.”

“That’s easy.  Little problem.” 

“I agree,” I say. 

Kevin jumps in, “Big, medium or little problem-- you have no place to live.”

“BIG PROBLEM!” Sophie calls out. 

“That is a big problem.” 

“My turn! My turn!  Sophie insists. 

“Hit me,” I say

“Your house burns down so you have no more food and nothing to drink and you dehydrate and die.”

“That sounds like a big problem.”  Kevin ventures.

“One of the biggest, “ I add. 

The point is not just to relish the misery of others; this is not a game of schadenfreude.  Rather, we are trying to teach Sophie to differentiate what’s worth flipping out over and what isn’t.

This lesson has been slow in coming.  Some kids are just more than others—more intense, more emotional, more volatile and easily triggered by even the slightest of insults.  It’s hard to know what will set her off:
·      Her shoes are too tight (because she pulled the Velcro closure until to was cutting off her circulation)
·      There’s a fleck of pepper on her brussel sprout
·      She didn’t make a perfect “m”
·      Everyone (in kindergarten) will think her very adorable hat looks stupid

There’s crying, screaming, falling off of chairs, grand exits, door slamming, and, occasionally, I get bitch slapped. 

It is during these times, that I must reach deep within myself to find my empathy.  Can you imagine, going through life, so tortured by these details?  I can see it in her eyes.  She isn’t enjoying this.  She’s in pain. 

Not being able to regulate your emotions is a skill deficit.  Most kids develop internal controls by the age of six, but some do not.  I see kids with the same problem every week in my work.

It used to be that at work, I’d develop curricula for social skills development.  I’d train others to teach these curricula.  I’d design interventions.  I teach parents how to implement them.  But at home, I’d get frustrated. 

Eventually, I realized that hoping she will grow out of it and trying to be as patient as humanly possible is simply not enough.   I have to practice what I preach. 

The key is that you have to play the game in times of peace.  You can’t stand over your child who is having an apoplexy just because you sprinkled a little cinnamon on her oatmeal against her unspoken wishes and ask, “Is this a big, medium, or little problem?”

At least not initially. 

But if you do, and you do it frequently enough…not so frequently that it becomes oppressive and clinical, but often enough that your child comes home from school one day and tells you:

“Today at lunch we played big, medium or little problem.”

“Oh yeah?

“Yeah.  Ms. R. Said ‘big, medium, or little problem:  you eat too much vegetables.” 

“And what did you say?

“No, I didn’t answer, Ava did.”

“Well then, what did Ava say?”

“She said Big Problem!  I said little problem because it’s healthy for you.  Miss R. said if you’re used to it, little problem.  If you are not, big.”

“Ms. R. sounds like a smart woman.” 

“She is,” Sophie nodded. 

It has become part of her repertoire.  A tool in her toolbox.  Something, now, I can gently ask her to remove in times of trouble. 

Of course, there is an art to this.  There is a sweet spot.  A small window of time during which you can jump in and gently suggest that she conduct her analysis.  It’s the beat, the infinitesimal space between realizing she has a problem, and getting hijacked by her amygdala again.  That tiny part of the brain responsible for fight or flight when one feels threatened.

If you miss it…the game becomes part of the problem.  But if you catch it…

We were at the Thanksgiving table.  I set a small pile of roasted brussel sprouts on her plate.  Sophie’s horsepower kicked in, she revved from 0-90 in a split second:

“I DON’T WANT ANY BRUSSEL SPROUTS!  TAKE THEM OFF MY PLATE.”  She slumped down in her seat, as if the brussel sprouts were an oppressive weight on her very soul. 

“Soph, you’ve got too many vegetables.  Big, medium or little problem?”

Her eyes were still fighting me, but a smile broke out on her lips. 

“Can you take some of these off my plate, please,” I modeled.

“Can you take some of these off my plate, please,” she parroted. 

Kevin removed some of the brussel sprouts.  Great weight lifted, Sophie rose back up in her chair.  Peace and harmony were restored. 

Later, she asked for a second helping. 

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