Have you got one of those kids who seems to have their antennae set to super-super sensitive? Just the smallest hint of the possibility of one of life’s many little and big BUMPS (adversities) and its all drama stations go! It would appear that, for this sort of child, a paper cut is almost as devastating as the death of a pet, moving schools – or any of life’s big challenges. For parents and teachers moving in the wake of this child, exhaustion and having one’s patience stretched thin is a sure sign that the child’s drama setting might need a little bit of a tweak.
The word that comes up most often in children’s psychology to describe this is ‘decatastrophising.’ This is the ability to emotionally react to life’s BUMPS in a way that uses previous experiences to inform the appropriate emotional intensity required.
THE CONCEPT OF SCALING
If we were to give every child a scale of 1 to 10 against which to rate their level of emotional arousal to a stimulus in their environment, over time they would bank enough experiences to know that some experiences would only be a 1 or 2 and others would allowably be a 9 or 10. Most important in understanding this concept is to remember that each child’s experience of life will inform how they plot BUMPS on their Catastrophe Scale. For example, a child who has experienced the trauma of being bullied will rank any event that mirrors that experience highly – because it is part of the way in which they think about and process the world around them. Similarly, a child who has experienced a death in the family, a separation, moving schools etc. will have a different way of looking at the world and responding to similar events in their experience of life. In essence, every child’s Catastrophe Scale is going to be different to another because of their unique temperament and life experiences that shape them.
INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL SUPPORTS AND RESOURCES
The resources that a child has to call on is another important factor in understanding their response to any given situation. For example, a child who experiences a parental separation may rank their level of emotional arousal to this event as low as 1 or 2 when the separation is supportive of the child. So, parents who work together to support the child (even if their relationship is acrimonious) are helping that child to see it one of life’s events that is difficult but manageable. Even highly emotionally difficult situations can be cushioned by the child’s internal and external supports and resources – which will become part of the way they negotiate and rank other happenings in their life.
Every time a child experiences one of life’s inevitable curve balls, their internal response is to rank it against what they’ve experienced previously – which will help them to give it a place and to respond to it appropriately. The first time a child falls over and grazes their knee, undoubtedly, the response will be catastrophic. The hope is, is that the next time the child experiences this normal childhood happening, while their first response to the pain might be expectedly loud, their ongoing response will not be as catastrophic as it was the time before and so on. This is what we call resilience – the ability to bounce back – and this is always assisted by a child experiencing and then getting over life’s BUMPS. Essentially, that child is banking experiences that build their resilience and help them to respond to other happenings in a resilient and well-regulated way.
WE ALL HAVE THAT FRIEND…
We all have that friend who seems impervious to using life’s BUMPS to grow their resilience and diminish their catastrophic response to almost every event of every day. You know, the conversation with a friend that sounds like this:
You: The car park was so full this morning at the shops that it took me ages to find a park.
Friend: You have no idea! At least you found one. Last week I reckon I cruised around for at least half an hour and I still had to walk at least a kilometer to get into the shops!
Ongoing relationships with these friends is always fraught and often results in avoidance and lots of sighing and groaning both before and after an interaction. Basically – whatever is happening in your life is sure to be eclipsed by anything and everything in their lives. Exhausting!
HOW TO TEACH THIS IMPERATIVE LIFE SKILL
So, how do we teach a child to use their experiences to build their internal reservoir of resilience? Using a 1 to 10 scale is powerful. Plot events on Post-it notes and move them up and down. Talk about what makes something that starts out as an 8 into a 6 or even a 5. It might be time, being able to talk to you about it or knowing that someone else has gone through the same thing – and survived. Plot your own events too and talk about what helps you to decatastrophise these over time.
Call a child’s attention to the intensity of their emotional response. Practise some really good calming down strategies that a child can use as soon as they feel a big response to a situation. We talk about “Bubble Breathing” in our Kids’ and Parents’ Notebooks and in Teaching Module 4 – Strategies 4 Managing Me. It’s a particular breathing technique that centres a child and helps them to diminish the intensity of their emotional response. Visualisation and mantras are other great ways to help a child get in control of their emotional arousal – they can use these repeatedly.
For the child who experiences each of life’s little and big BUMPS at the same intensity, the classroom and the playground can be difficult places to grow up. They can become socially isolated as they get older because other children get tired of all the drama. And honestly – even adults find the child difficult to be around ongoing because every event requires a Code Red response.
Teaching these kids the very valuable life tool of decatastrophising is essential. Banking experiences and ranking new experiences against them is a key skill. Knowing how to calm down is another. Having great role models in managing ‘Catastrophic’ situations is a necessity – this means making obvious how you rank and then decatastrophise life’s BUMPS. How do you calm down? How do you gain perspective? How do you manage yourself?
For some children, there is a need to seek help to help them manage their emotional responses to situations is very necessary. As they’re growing they’re supposed to be learning about how to manage themselves emotionally for life – sometimes this doesn’t go quite as well as we’ve hoped. At other times, life crashes into children and as a result they become emotionally hypersensitive and they need specialist attention to reset their alert system. Your School Psychologist or GP is a good starting place.
You can read more about how to help children to decatastrophise and grow their resilience on our website. We have resources for kids and parents, educators and health professionals to teach these skills and we also offer Workshops for parents and educators on how to grow this most valuable skill set. Ask us for more information at [email protected].