When you’re a child with overexcitabilities, one moment you might be talking at the top of your voice and five minutes later you need absolute silence. Unfortunately – because OEs are hereditary – you probably live with several other intense and sensitive folk whose needs rarely coincide with yours.
If you’re not talking at top volume, you might be leaping around, dancing, whistling, clapping, fidgeting, playing the same piece of music for hours on end, arguing, sucking, chewing, crunching, banging or expressing your intensity in one of a million other ways that make you just a little hard to live with. And that’s even before we take into account the sensitivities of other family members.
So what do we do when our children are screaming at each other (or worse) because their needs are out of sync with their siblings’? And how do we stay sane in the process?
Conventional methods don’t work in non-average families
When one child is bugging everyone else, the conventional approach is to step in and make the ‘offending’ child stop their behaviour. Maybe even punish them for it.
But who is the ‘offending child’? Is it the one who had so much energy that he needed to bang his drum while stamping his feet for ten minutes straight, or is it his sister who eventually bashed him on the head to make him stop?
And in the midst of all that chaos, do we have the wisdom to make that judgment?
An alternative approach
Instead of waiting until OEs collide, let’s teach all our kids to approach life with the resilient attitude psychologists call an internal locus of control – a mindset that will not only create a more peaceful home, but will benefit them throughout their lives.
People who have an internal locus of control (ILOC) believe that what happens to them depends on what they do, rather than on events outside their control. (In contrast, people with an external locus of control believe that what happens to them is controlled by outside forces.)
People who live mostly in ILOC tend to be happier, more confident and successful, have a strong sense of self-efficacy, and enjoy better physical health.
So how do we help our kids to grow up with this positive attitude? ILOC begins with that holy grail of parenting children with OEs: self-regulation.
Teaching our children self-regulation
When our kids are triggered, they flip into survival mode: fight or flight are the only options available to them. We want to get them back into their thinking brains, which is where their power lies.
To do this, we need to do something we’ve been doing since they were babies – use our own regulation to help soothe them.
Think about what happens when a baby cries and a calm, loving adult picks her up and cuddles her. The baby hasn’t yet learned to self-regulate, so the adult helps. (Contrast what happens when a dysregulated adult tries to calm a crying baby.)
Our intense and sensitive children are no longer babies but they have bigger ‘engines’ than other kids. It makes sense, then, that it takes them longer to learn to learn to control those engines.
Of course, staying regulated ourselves is easier said than done when we’re trying to cook dinner at the end of a long day and yet another scream emanates from the bedroom.
As parents we can improve our own ability to self-regulate in two ways: by de-activating our past-based triggers, and by taking care of own needs.
Most of us were raised in families where intensity had to be suppressed. We learned – or were made – to stuff down our feelings to keep the peace. We grew up to be more or less functional adults, able to manage our emotions when we needed to.
And then we had children, and those intense children pushed buttons we never knew we had, bringing to the surface years of suppressed pain.
I’m not suggesting every parent of kids with OE needs therapy, but if we want to stay calm in the face of their intense behaviours, we need to find some way to deal with our own issues. (Paula Prober’s book, Your Rainforest Mind is an excellent place to start.)
As well as dealing with the big stuff, we need to take care of our day-to-day needs if we want to stay regulated in the midst of our kids’ OEs. (See my series on how to use our overexcitabilities to nourish our souls for some ideas.)
Helping children increase their window of stress tolerance
We can help children learn self-regulation skills by chatting with them (when they’re calm) about their window of stress tolerance.
Make lists together of things that make their window smaller, and things that make it bigger. (Younger kids might relate more to the idea of a bucket that gets fuller or emptier.)
For ‘Things that make my window smaller’ they might come up with: playing video games for too long, staying up late, eating too much sugar, being hungry or thirsty, for example.
’Things that make my window bigger’ might include: going for a walk, playing outside, eating healthily, cuddling the pets, jumping on the trampoline, enjoying a good book, playing with clay.
When we talk with our kids about stress tolerance, we’re teaching them that they have more control over how they react than they may have realised.
But what if a child’s done all she can to take care of herself, and her sibling’s intense behaviour is still driving her nuts?
‘What can I do to make myself feel better?’
Next, our kids need to consider what (peaceful!) steps they can take to stop their sibling’s behaviour affecting them.
For instance, if noise is an issue, can they move to a different room or even outside? Can they use ear defenders or listen to soothing music or white noise?
Teach powerful communication strategies
We can also show our children how to compassionately negotiate with their siblings. I like the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) model, in which we refer to our own needs and use non-blaming language.
NVC can be practised in advance and then be used either in the moment, or later when everyone’s calm.
An example might be: ‘When I hear you making that noise I feel overwhelmed because I need quiet to concentrate on my schoolwork. Would you be willing to do something quieter for a while?’
But shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to be considerate?
So far I’ve talked about helping our kids self-regulate so that they’re better able to deal with with their siblings’ intense behaviours.
What’s I haven’t talked much about is the intense behaviours that some might say are causing the problems in the first place. Does this mean I think we shouldn’t encourage our children to be respectful of other people’s needs? Of course not. I’m just trying to rectify the balance. The refrain of ‘Be quiet!’ and ‘Keep still!’ follows too many of these kids wherever they go.
But intensity is a part of who our children are. It’s no easier to turn off than their sensitivity.
Home is a place where we should all be allowed to express ourselves as the vibrant, quirky individuals that we are.
And if we can teach our kids to cope with each other, they’ll be able to cope with anything. 😉
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How do you manage when overexcitabilities collide in your family?
I’d love to hear from you. 🙂
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How to stay sane when your kids fight
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Main photo credit: Castleguard