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Woody to the Rescue

posted Feb 4, 2013, 8:13 AM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 4:53 AM ]
I was tapping away at my computer on our basement couch when high pitched screeches from a few feet away wailed out of control.  With great distress, Cienna and MaryAnn battled for the same toy. "I had it first!" screamed one. "Whaaaah!" wailed the other.

It was obvious their prefrontal cortex neurons weren't going to kick in on their own this time without mirroring a few of mine. So...though naturally annoyed that my personal few minutes of peace were up, I sensed the need to pull up my boot straps and lend my slightly more mature mind to assist my two little ones in managing the high emotions that go along with the conflict their ACCs had accurately detected. 

In this particular case, I took a wild guess that the 1-yr-old (who has plenty of exploring-the-world neurons, but sharing-what-I-discover neurons...not so much) had indeed taken a toy without having a mature discussion with older sibling about how to negotiate shared time with the hot commodity. As I approached the situation, I concentrated on having my body language say, "Oh, I see you've discovered a conflict. I can help!" as opposed to "Not again...what's wrong with you two immature hoodlums?" This took some personal prefrontal cortex power. Trust me. 

"I'm sorry MaryAnn took your toy, Cienna. It looks like she'd like a turn. When you're done playing with it, can you pass it to her?" Cienna happily nodded, felt validated, calmed down, and went on playing.

MaryAnn, however, whose hands I had to pry off the toy during the above conversation, screamed even louder and beckoned for her motor skills to help her process all the emotional energy she was feeling. She rolled around on the floor and flailed wildly. Her eyes glared at me and tears streamed down her face.

I again summoned my own prefrontal cortex neurons that are responsible for emotional regulation and empathy and compassion because 1. If I didn't, I would feel out of control myself and 2. I knew this very conflict MaryAnn was having was the perfect opportunity for her budding prefrontal cortex neurons to witness mature conflict after many more similar practice sessions, she can eventually gain this skill as well...kind of like slowly learning to walk emotionally.  In other words her tantrum is a chance to practice taking an emotional baby step because her prefrontal cortex growth (which she needs in order to experience healthy and happy adulthood) can only occur if she is in the presence of someone who displays prefrontal cortex maturity (that would be me...hopefully) during a conflict (which she was obviously having). 

I focused my concentration on MaryAnn as she kicked and screamed. I picked her up to show genuine comfort and concern. I gazed deeply into her eyes while imagining the confusion, frustration, and sadness she must be feeling. She screamed louder and whacked me a few times with her hands and feet, squirming to get out of me arms. I showed respect for her body that was trying desperately to manage these emotions by putting her gently down in front of me, my attention still focused on her needs. I watched her roll around on the floor for another minute or two. I particularly noticed how her eyes, fierce with emotion, repeatedly glanced at mine as if to continually and naturally sense whether I was still connected to her...or not.  

Perfect. Those searching eyes are such a classic sign of attachment. I feel thrilled...not in a cocky, arrogant sort of way...but in a tender, peaceful, loving sort of way. I also knew that if her body did not sense my mature attention, she would have to cope with this negative emotion on her own. Her brain would find a way of course...but that other way would not involve positive prefrontal cortex growth.

But with my focused attention on her needs, with my connection to her, she could freely bounce her negative energy right out at me and instead of bouncing it right back at her with my frustration, worry, anger, etc., I could instead willingly absorb it and help her change it into something positive...using my prefrontal cortex...thus making me a stronger, better person as well. 

Whenever there's a conflict, there are two goals to accomplish: 1. Shrink the negative energy that's detected and 2. Produce positive energy to take it's place. In many cases with  my children, I've noticed that in a moment of distress (like a tantrum) simply shrinking the negative is accomplishment enough for the moment. Then later (like hours, days, or weeks later) when the mind is "free" again, we can work on producing some positiveness to fill in that new empty space. 

As I soaked some of MaryAnn's negative energy in (thus helping her shrink it), I pondered what I could do to assist my sweet, struggling girl in what TO DO in place of the negative reaction she'd had. Ideas came to my mind. 

I grabbed a princess and a Care Bear and modeled happy playtime. When Wish Bear invited princess over to play at her house, MaryAnn stopped screaming and watched for a second. But when princess took too long to answer one of Wish Bear's questions, MaryAnn's mind reminded her that she still felt hurt inside and she started crying again. This back and forth, between two emotional worlds, happened a few more times...

I sensed that it might be best to end our positive disciplinary session. I felt content to take her and her vulnerable feelings with me upstairs to help me cook dinner. Spending more time with me doing something very different would help to shrink the rest of the negative energy and build up our relationship a bit more so we could work on the playing nicely part again later...when the timing felt more natural.
But then I noticed a famous cowboy sitting nearby. And I knew that unlike Big Sister who was always frightened of toys that made noise as a young child, MaryAnn loves them.

So, like a true gentleman, this cowboy strutted fearlessly right up within inches of MaryAnn's face and said, "Howdy partner! My name's Woody. Do you want to play with me, MaryAnn?" [I helped him say the last part.]

She nodded yes...with a BIG smile on her face.

And for another 10 minutes, Woody, Wish Bear, Princess, and MaryAnn played hide-and-seek in their castle, went grocery shopping, ate pretend apples, and talked about sharing (naturally).