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Milk bottles and deescalation

Why empathy works when behaviour charts don't

“Can I just have a word?”

Those were words guaranteed to make my heart sink when I was still collecting my sons from mainstream school, I heard it often and it was never a harbinger of joy.

Early childhood trauma leaves such wreckage in its wake. For those who have been scarred by it, school often presents demands and dangers that provoke survival responses. Those survival responses, in turn, frequently create a certain amount of inconvenience for those in the vicinity of them. And apparently inconvenience couldn’t occur without reporting it to me in tones which suggested I was somehow responsible. Despite the fact that I wasn’t even in the bulding.

The only impact this had, apart from making me feel super awkward, was that my son, who was already struggling to manage his emotions, got to hear his misdeeds recounted for my benefit. Cue raging shame fest. Cue small child bursting out of the school grounds like he’d been shot from a cannon and quite a lot of post school chaos.

School had several well thought out behaviour management programmes. Which, to their consternation and continual surprise, didn’t work very well for my son. Largely because they required rational thought. The trouble is, it’s very difficult to make rational modifications to your behaviour, when your brain is in survival mode. Not when you’re six and not when you’re forty six.

There are very good evolutionary reasons for this. We wouldn’t have got very far as a species if “RUN! THERE’S A BEAR COMING OUT OF THE FOREST NOW!” could have been trumped by, “If I run now, someone will move my picture onto the sad cloud,” or “Well, I could panic, but I might miss out on the end of term treat in three weeks time.”

These days we’ve had an upgrade. It’s not mainstream school anymore. It’s a special school with transport. So now the ‘word’ comes by email. It still makes my heart sink, but at least I don’t have to stand about awkwardly while it’s being delivered, with my own brain descending into a panic state and mushing up my reasoning. If the email gets to me before my son gets home, I can have a cup of tea and work out how to respond.

One day last week, the email told me that my son had a great morning and then spent the whole of the afternoon being difficult and disruptive. So something had obviously triggered him at around about lunchtime, and he had remained in a state of dysregulation all afternoon. He was not going to be at all calm when he got home. So what might help?

One of his favourite de-stressing tools is plastic milk bottles full of water. You can hurl them furiously at the ground or into the air and watch them land with a satisfying thunk, splattering water everywhere. I keep some spare for moments like this. But I know from experience, that sometimes, the process of filling them up, takes too long. Maybe I should fill some up before he got home? And then it occurred to me that if I did that, not only would we shortcut the bottle filling process, but it would also let him know that I understood and I was on his side.

And you know what? It worked. He crashed into the house in a steaming rage. I ushered him to the back door and said, “I had an email from your teacher. It sounds like you’ve had a bad day. I thought you might need these.” His face broke into a huge grin, of amusement and relief. “You were right!” he said. Five minutes later, milk bottles smashed, he was sat on the sofa with a glass of milk and we were having a chat about his day and what had gone wrong.

So what do you need when your brain has gone into panic mode? It seems that sometimes all it takes is a bit of good humoured empathy and some milk bottles to smash.

This was first published in Catherine's blog on medium

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Love this. Those triggers which make your inside hit the floor. I don’t know what normal is anymore now that I have recovered from so many. The prolonged periods of calm, confident interaction feel odd, like I’ve not settled into my increasingly trauma free shoes.


So wise. It made me cry and made me feel joy

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