Saving Reasons Until the End
Devon is an 11-year old living with his grandmother. His mother left the family years ago and his father has recently gotten into trouble. Devon often expresses that he really misses his father and does not understand why his grandmother is acting more like his school principal than the nice lady who used to spoil him. Unfortunately, Devon often becomes emotional, especially when he is struggling with missing the life he used to have. When these big emotions occur, he has a difficult time calming down. His grandmother regularly tells him “ you need to stop being so upset”. This statement is typically followed up with a list of reasons as to why he should be fine. This reasoning never works, instead, Devon becomes more emotional and his behaviors spiral out of control.
Now, think about a time in your past when something really upset you. Remember a moment where you were sad, angry or even anxious. You may have heard some of these phrases from a well-meaning friend: “Stop being so upset!” “Just calm down!” “Everything will be fine!” Then, you likely received a lecture with a list of reasons why you should not be having these feelings. Did any of that help? No, probably not.
When children and teens have hard histories and are exhibiting challenging behaviors, our response is to give them reasons to stop. Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and fellow of the Child Trauma Academy teaches us that this is the wrong place to start when helping our children through difficult situations. Instead, Dr. Perry says we need to begin with helping our children first calm down or regulate, then relate to what they are experiencing, and, finally, reason with them. He refers to this approach as “The Three Rs” – Regulate, Relate, and Reason.
Each “R” is important, but when your foster or adopted child is upset and dysregulated, the order matters. First, we are to regulate, then we relate, and finally, we reason. Is that the order you normally use when approaching a child who is really upset? My default approach is to reason first. When that does not work, I will try to relate. Then, unfortunately, when nothing else works, I end with helping my child regulate. Science shows us that this is the most inefficient and ineffective way to get challenging behaviors under control.
In moments of big emotions, we must first help our children regulate. Regulation is the ability to manage one’s own emotions and behaviors. When your children are dysregulated, even over something seemingly small, having them get back to a point of being able to express their thoughts and emotions safely is the first step. This is the first step because when children are dysregulated, they are operating out of their “fear brains,” which is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. Without regulation, they cannot be related to or reasoned with. Helpful ways to regulate a child include a snack and water, a short walk around the house, stepping outside, and deep breathing. The key to helping children with regulation is to regulate with them: help them get that snack, walk outside with them, and do that deep breathing together. When he is inconsolable, sitting next to Devon and rubbing his back would be a great way for his grandma to help with regulation. You can know that children are regulated when you see steady breathing and relaxed body language. Once children are regulated, you can move on to relating.
Relating includes talking with children and helping them feel seen and heard. Another way to think of relating to children is showing empathy and compassion. This is important because, no matter how small the problem appears, children from hard places carry the burden of a lot of unseen trauma. Relating looks like repeating back to children the words they are using to express their sadness or telling them a story that shows them you understand what they are feeling. Devon’s grandma could relate by telling him that she understands he misses his dad. She could even tell Devon that she misses his dad, too. When relating to children in this way, we are strengthening attachment to them.
The last part of the “Three Rs” approach is to reason. This is the point at which you can access children’s higher-level thinking brains. It’s at this point that Devon’s grandma could give him reasons as to why he’s safer living with her right now, and he can receive it because he is calm and feels understood. In this reasoning phase, children can reflect on what has happened and learn from it. Unfortunately, we tend to start where we should finish.
Recently, Devon became extremely upset when his video game was turned off as a consequence for not finishing his schoolwork. He started screaming that his dad bought him the video game and it’s not his grandma’s right to take it away. Before learning “The Three Rs,” Devon’s grandma would have listed all the reasons why his schoolwork needs to be done before he plays his video game. She would have then launched her standard lecture about being disrespectful. Now that she knows how much more effective this approach is, his grandma responded to this latest episode differently. She got him a glass of water and listened to what he was saying. She explained that she understands why video games are more fun than school, and that she knows it’s confusing that he has to listen to her rules now. Devon calmed down. When she noticed this, his grandma explained that school is his job right now and that he can have video game time after his homework was done. While Devon didn’t necessarily like the reason, he accepted it much more easily than if she had started with her typical lecture.
The next time you see your kiddo heading for a meltdown, check yourself before the list of reasons to not meltdown come pouring out of your mouth. Start with regulating, move to relating, and end with reasoning. You’ll see faster resolutions to challenging behaviors, but, most importantly, you will be forming stronger attachments to your children. If you need help with The Three Rs, reach out to us today!