Quote of the Day


Calming My Wild Child

One of the adoptive parenting groups that I belong to shared this helpful article by Debbie Jeffrey on how to help my busy boy settle down. I've cut-and-pasted it here, as the webpage version printed very strangely. If you want to print it, you can cut-and-paste from here into your word-processing program. I hope I've put in enough links that will direct enough traffic to Debbie Jeffrey's pages that she will overlook my copyright liberties.

My sons have always been the kinds of kids who everyone called hyperactive. Just watching them would give you a headache. When they were going especially hyper and crazy, we used to always send them for a run around the block. We figured they needed to blow off some steam and it'd tire them out.

"Everybody" used to tell us that all boys go wild, and that's what they needed.

I must admit, it didn't work too well for our kids - they'd come back still chomping at the bit, and with enough energy for another hundred blocks. It got them out of the house and away from a mother who was about to blow her stack, and that was useful. But that's about all.

Sometimes "everybody" gets it wrong.

We suffered their hyperactive behaviour for years, managing it by dosing ourselves with large quantities of bourbon and paracetamol (sorry), until my reading finally helped me to figure out what was going on for them, and what we, as parents, could do about it.

In my article on hyperactivity, I wrote about how the brains of young children who've experienced trauma or disruption actually get stuck in the fear response. As a result, their brains shift very easily into a "fight or flight" mode. So they get aroused and "hyper" very quickly, and sometimes in response to things that you or I wouldn't normally think of as stressful. These children sometimes look like they have ADHD. What they have is actually more like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This understanding is relevant to adoptive families because disruption early on in life - like separation from birth mother and changes in caregivers - can be quite traumatic. We expect adopted babies to cope with it; however some children seem more sensitive to it than others. Added to this initial trauma that all adopted children experience, many of the children who we adopt at an older age have experienced abuse and neglect. This typically causes the changes to brain and behaviour of which I'm writing.

Thus, I came to realise that my kids, adopted at an older age and who do have problems related to early trauma and attachment difficulties, were hyperaroused. What they needed was quiet and calm to help their brains settle down - not more physical exertion. Asking my kids to go for a run was revving them up, not settling them.

In the last few years, I've developed a different attitude and learned some calming strategies, based on this understanding.

So how does a parent develop a calming attitude?

When your child is being hyperactive, fidgety, argumentative, loud and silly, even overly anxious, think of his brain as being hyperaroused and out of control. He lacks the ability to self-soothe. His environment needs, ideally, to be low on stress and stimulation and high on parental contact and calm.

I find myself using these principles, to a lesser extent, even with my relatively well-balanced biological child. When she's overanxious or tantrumming, I can see that, from another perspective, she's stressed and out-of-control. Her brain has reverted to a more immature level of thinking - she can't calm herself down, she can't problem-solve, her behaviour is escalating, and she needs the soothing influence of a parent to get it together. So the strategies I'm about to explain can be helpful for all kids.

I like to think of two guiding principles.

(1)Lower the stimulation level.
(2)Time-In (keeping your child close).

Let me explain.

(1)Lowering the stimulation level.

It keeps your child aroused and stressed. Loud music, screaming and yelling are pretty obvious examples (don't you find that you get on edge when people are screaming at each other?). Less obvious ones are lots of unstructured physical exercise, TV (especially cartoons), video games, incessant talking, and crowds of people. I mention video games and cartoons because they contain lots of fast-changing images, and sometimes violent themes.

When your child is hyped up or anxious, keep those things to a minimum. This is not the time to take her for a visit to a theme park or send him out for a water fight with the neighbourhood kids.

How? What can you do instead?

First, when she flies off the handle over something trivial, don't argue with her. You can't reason with someone who's stressed, frightened, hyperactive - do that later, when she's settled. Be sympathetic but firm, and stay calm. Say to her, quite directly, "You're hyped up, and you need to calm down. I know what you need."

Find some quiet activities, preferably some that involve sitting and concentrating. Simple craft activities are great. If hyperactivity is a frequent problem with your child, it's worth having a box of stuff that you've pre-prepared to bring out at these times.

Some practical suggestions: drawing and colouring; jigsaws; playing with playdough (even my teenagers still love this); stringing beads; knitting; Lego; cutting and pasting (collage for older kids); chalk drawing on the driveway; playing with toys in the bath; puzzles such as word searches and simple crosswords; Hama beads (for older kids); finger-knitting. Your child should be doing these things alone or in your company only.

If your child is really hyped up, of course, it'll be hard to get him to concentrate on anything, so before you try these things, you might need to start with some of the "time-in" strategies suggested in the next section. However if you learn to read the signs that he's getting out of control, you may be able to stop his behaviour escalating - "nip it in the bud" - by trying some of the above ideas.


Time-in means keeping kids close to you when they're anxious or being troublesome.

Why? For healthy, well-attached children, it's very comforting to have mum or dad close when they're stressed. (And if your child doesn't feel comforted by having you close, then you need to actively encourage her to stay close - it'll help the attachment process). Remember, when they're stressed and aroused, their brains have reverted to an immature level of functioning. Babies need to be close to their parents. Research is showing us that, for a young child, just being physically close to a parent will increase the levels of calming hormones in her brain, and decrease the stress hormones. Physical contact is even better.

I know that it goes against the grain, in our culture, to keep our kids close when they're misbehaving, so this may require a significant shift in your thinking. Typically we like to send them away - to their rooms, to time-out - because we think this will decrease stimulation (which it kind of does), give them "thinking time", and get them out of our hair (which is sometimes, after all, necessary). We like to think our kids should calm themselves down independently of us.

But the trouble with time-out is that because it is so isolating, it actually increases the child's stress. It raises levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adds to a child's sense of aloneness. It rarely works as "thinking time", because when a child is feeling stressed and upset, he's not very good at problem-solving.

Let's be realistic, sometimes parents need to do it when they're really at their wit's end and going spare. But I've come to realise that keeping your child close is a much better way, when you can manage it, of calming him down, de-stressing him, helping him to think rationally once again.

Your child needs you to be stronger, wiser, calmer and more in control than she. Keeping her close when she's hyperactive or stressed won't make her dependent on you. It increases her feelings of security and trust and, in so doing, actually builds connections in her brain. When she feels calm and secure she'll be confident enough to break away, to explore and develop independence.

I know that being around hyperactive, stressed out kids makes you, as a parent, feel on edge and stressed out. But I found that, when I started to make a habit of time-in rather than time-out, I started to feel more in control myself, and it was easier for me to stay calm. It probably won't happen at first, so "fake it 'til you make it". And when you do have the occasional bust-out and blow your stack, forgive yourself.

How? How do you practise time-in? Here are some ideas:

- Have him do some of the activities suggested above, while close to you, e.g. sitting on the floor or at the table next to you.
- Get her to help you with the housework, alongside you. e.g. wiping walls, hanging out the washing.
- Have him help with cooking. Baking biscuits (cookies)is great - grab some pre-prepared dough from the fridge section of the supermarket, which makes it easy to bake on the spur of the moment.
- Have her just sit on the floor next to you.
- Sit and read to him.
- Play some finger games (e.g. "Where is thumbkin?") or singing games with you.
- When he's up to it - hugs and cuddles and rocking. Hold your child like you would a baby, across your lap with his head in your left arm, get him looking in your eyes and talk or sing to her. Holding like this, especially with eye contact, engages the right side of the brain, which is the part that regulates emotion. It's what mothers automatically do with their babies, and scientists have only recently begun to figure out why. It's very soothing, and it helps to develop the parts of the brain that regulate emotion. You can be quite direct in how you explain it to your child: "Here's what we're going to do. Some kids find this very relaxing." With an adopted or foster child, you might even say, "We didn't get to do this when you were a baby. So we're going to do it now."
- Strong Sitting. This is another very powerful tool for settling kids. I consider it about as close as you can get to meditation for children. I've been told that you can teach children to meditate, but I've never been able to teach my wild kids to do so (funny ...)I have, however, been able to get them to strong sit. It seems to help the brain shift gears, to engage the rational, thinking side that moderates strong emotions. Here's what you do.

The child sits quietly, cross-legged, on the floor, with her back unsupported, eyes open, mouth closed, hands comfortably in her lap, nothing to fiddle with. The aim is for her to eventually sit for one minute for every year of his life (i.e. a 5 year old would sit for 5 minutes).

You need to build up the length of time the child can do it, so start with just a small amount of time - even 30 seconds is good. Try to do it 2 to 3 times a day, and make sure your child is with you when he does it. While you're cooking dinner is a good time, or sitting doing paperwork. I set the timer on the stove for my son, and if he breaks the silence, or starts moving and fidgeting, he has to start again. He's learned (eventually) not to break it, which also makes it a good exercise in self-discipline. Surprisingly, he now does it with a minimum of fuss when I ask him, which tells me that he must recognise, at some level, that it helps him.

In conclusion: If you have a wild child, start by limiting the time she spends in stimulating activities. Monitor the amount of time he has with TV and video games. Recognise the signs that she's becoming hyperaroused, and redirect her attention to quiet, calming activities before she really starts losing it. This is helpful even for the not-so-wild distressed child. Make sure he spends plenty of time in close proximity to you and has plenty of physical contact with you. Do your best to stay cool and, in time, your wild child will be calmer, and you'll both be more in control.

- Debbie Jeffrey


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