If The Elf Hat Fits

There’s a lot she doesn’t know. Of course there is. But plenty she does.

She knows that, just as her daddy was reading her bedtime stories, the evening after her third birthday, there was a ring at the door. She knows her daddy carried her downstairs and opened the door. She knows three men were there and one of them hit her daddy in the face.

Later, her six year old brother told her the bad men were angry because Daddy had stolen things and hidden them in the house. She didn’t say much about that, because it wasn’t something she could understand.

When the men had come back, even more angry, her mummy said it wasn’t safe at home and they had to go. They left Daddy and left their house. Her brother said Daddy had been naughty.

She was sad and angry and scared and very good at expressing her feelings. She talked a great deal about the bad men but not much about her daddy, and none of us could figure out how to explain in words that would be meaningful to her.

Sometimes, when she saw her daddy she would say, “You stealed things,” and he would agree, sadly, that he had. But that was all that was said.

She spent a lot of time thinking over the spring and summer and autumn.

By the winter, she had a new home and new friends and was going to preschool. The staff there had a funny joke for Christmas time. They said there was a naughty elf who stole things and hid them. She watched as the ladies searched for the items the elf was supposed to have stolen and listened when they told the children how cross they were with him.

She carried on thinking.

As Christmas grew nearer, her mummy asked her what she wanted to buy Daddy for Christmas. “A elf hat,” she announced, solemnly.

So that is what her daddy will get for Christmas. No doubt he’ll think it’s a cute and funny gift. No doubt he will wear it, to please her.

And she has, in her pragmatic and very literal way, found a cap to fit him… for now, at least.

Doing the Gratefuls

A depressed man sitting on a bench

Charlie was stuck.  He recognised it.  He just didn’t know what to do about it.

I’m sure it’s a fairly familiar tale.  He’d given up a well paid managerial position in his late twenties to study for a degree in a subject he loved. He met his girlfriend at university.  They graduated, though, at the time the recession really kicked in.  Both of them had applied for plenty of jobs, but nothing came up, so both moved back in with their respective parents, hundreds of miles apart, and applied for job-seekers allowance.

Eventually, both found regular jobs.  These were not highly paid, not anything connected to their degrees or aspirations, but enabled them to save a small amount each month, pay their way at home and put together enough money to visit one another every month or so.

That wasn’t too bad for a start, but it dragged on year after year and both became thoroughly fed up.

“I’m 33,” Charlie announced miserably, when he came to stay with me last month. “I haven’t done anything yet.  I’m bored with my job, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living with Dad, I miss my girlfriend and I’m fed up.  I’ve applied for loads of other jobs but nothing comes up.  Nothing is going to change.  There’s no way out.”

On the surface of it, his situation didn’t look great.  He didn’t earn enough to move into a place of his own.  He certainly didn’t earn enough to keep his girlfriend while she relocated and searched for a new job.  He spent his evenings trying to write a best-seller and learning carpentry, but – as I’ve said, he was stuck.

I hated seeing Charlie this miserable.  I toyed with the idea of talking about how we create our own lives with the way we think about them, and about the nature of reality, but he wasn’t in a space where he could hear that.  I thought back to the time I’d been at my lowest, and the teacher who had rescued me.  He’d instructed me to go and write the words

I’m grateful for all in my life

on a sheet of paper, to look at it at least three times a day, and to repeat it five times on each occasion.  To say I’d been sceptical would be an understatement, but I’d done it, and the turnaround had been amazing.

I told Charlie the story.  His reaction was exactly what I’d expected – exactly what mine had been.

“Am I allowed to say it through gritted teeth with deep irony?” he asked, grimly.

“Sure,” I said.  “Say it any way you like, but say it.  As you say it, challenge yourself to think about the most depressing, horrible, unpleasant situations in your life, and work out what they’re teaching you or showing you.”

We tried a few together.  He named a particularly hated manager at work, listing the ways she undermined others, sloped off early leaving them struggling to meet deadlines, bad-mouthed others behind their backs while being sweet as sugar to their faces.  The list went on.

“So what is she teaching you?  What lesson does she have for you?” I asked.

He thought for a while.  “How not to be a manager?  How not to handle people?”

I suggested he turned those to positives.

“So… she’s showing me that people matter, that they deserve respect and that if I end up managing others I lead by example rather than giving orders and doing something else.”

“Valuable help then,” I grinned.  “You can be grateful for Jenny.”

“I’m grateful for Jenny,” he snarled, but at least he was smiling as he said it.

I reminded him of the sentence a few more times during the holiday.  He dutifully repeated it, but with a fairly bad grace.

English: Tropical Rucksack Side View

Before he left, I had the opportunity to slip that sheet of paper I’d written the original message on into a pocket of his rucksack.  At some point he’d find it.  It might jog his memory…

Last night, Charlie phoned me.

His girlfriend had been given a large pay rise.  She’d calculated that it was enough to rent a house in a lovely town close to where she works.  He had handed in his notice and was heading up to view properties with her this weekend.  They’re planning to move in together at the start of June.  His boss has promised him a glowing reference and he’s going to search for a job there.

He’d written 40,000 words of his book, he said.  He was happy with the way it was going.  His latest wood carving project was a large green man.  That was going well too.

I asked how he felt about uprooting and moving across the country.  He admitted it had been difficult at first.
“I’ve worked through it now, though,” he said. “Friends and people at work have been very supportive and now I’ve actually committed to it, I feel hopeful about the future.”

There was a pause while I took all this in.

Quietly, almost shyly, Charlie added, “Oh, and I’ve been doing the gratefuls and that every day…”

Charlie is my son.

I’m grateful for all in my life…

Dis-Easy

Tropical Storm Yagi in the North Pacific Ocean

“Try to stay at the eye of the storm” a wise friend once commented, when we were discussing those times when everyone and everything around you starts typhooning.

I’ve become rather good at that now.  In fact, for the week or so leading up to this weekend, I was very aware that every friend who contacted me had a problem.  People they’d trusted had let them down, finances had suddenly become a nightmare, relationships had fractured, illness or physical pain was afflicting them.

I listened to each of them with compassion and care.  I echoed back their statements, to allow them to find answers or ways forward where I could, and I tried very hard not to offer solutions or to drift into monologues about similar situations of my own, because I’ve learned that neither of those is particularly helpful.

You see, the Janonlife belief system is that each of us creates our own reality – and that includes any difficulties and problems – in order to gain the most experience possible from this short and tricky lifetime we are currently playing out, and to bring as much light as possible from our expanded, multi-dimensional selves into the existence of the Humans we are Being at this particular point.

I take full responsibility for what happened next, because I actually remember the thought that triggered it.

“This eye-of-the-storm bit is all well and good,” I commented to what I call my God-Self (also variously known as Soul, Spirit, Higher-Self, Essence, God, Goddess or what you will).  “Trouble is, this life has been going along smoothly for such a long time now.  I think I could do with a slight tweak, just to throw me a wake-up call.”

Oh be careful what you ask for, my friends!  By the end of the week, I was laid out by a physical meltdown.  All energy evaporated.  My skin became hypersensitive – to the point that even turning over in bed was agony.  My digestive system seemed to have temporarily been replaced by a particularly bad-tempered nest of vipers.  Strange swooshing noises swirled between my ears at every attempt to move about and waves dizziness overtook me even when I stayed still.

“OK.  Right.  Fine.  Got it,” I told the G-S.  “I take to my bed, drink water, stop eating and wait to see what comes in terms of experience from this lot.  Got it.  And could you ease up slightly on the stomach cramps please?”

So that’s how I spent the next few days.  I’ve had enough similar episodes in my life to recognise that – just as the New Agey lot say – physical illness is, quite literally, dis-ease.  This time, I’d even noticed beforehand that something inside me needed a hiatus – a cessation of everyday activities to give it the time and space to shift.

I didn’t force it.  I felt way too ill to do so, in any case.  I knew that something would come of this.  It always does.

Anger

Anger (Photo credit: ZORIN DENU)

On Sunday night, the something arrived.  Just as the physical symptoms were beginning to subside and I was ready for a relatively normal night’s sleep, huge tidal waves of anger swept through me.

Shaken but not altogether surprised, I grabbed a notepad and allowed a storm of fury against situations, individuals and events – recent and far in the past – to flow through the pen.  Whoa!  Can’t remember the last time I did anger.  I was amazed how much I’d been bottling up.

Did I feel any better for expressing it?

No.

I now had a list of people and events that I felt totally, utterly, mind-numbingly furious about.  I sat back exhausted for a few minutes and asked the G-S to remind me what came next.

“Er, mirrors?” the G-S hinted.

Oh yes.   Of course – I knew that.  Each of them was mirroring something inside my self – showing me aspects of my Being Human self that I was ready to change.

I returned to the list and worked my way through each situation.  None of these people was intentionally angering me.  Each was mirroring behaviour or attitudes I wanted to alter in myself.  Some took a bit of ferreting out.  One remained stubbornly insoluble, so I decide to sleep on it.

On Monday morning I woke feeling extremely weak, but physically fine.  All trace of anger and spite had evaporated along with the mysterious illness.  The elusive answer arrived as I relaxed in a fragrant bubbly bath and I knew the dis-ease had done its work well.

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Angry kids – a few strategies

Angry Talk (Comic Style)

Angry Talk (Comic Style) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days ago, a friend asked me for some hints on dealing with the anger her young son, diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, was experiencing.

My first thought was, ‘What can I teach her? She’s an amazing mum.’  Then I realised that, over the long years of working with kids, I’d actually amassed quite a range of strategies and insights.  So while fully accepting that I don’t have all the answers, or any special training, I’m going to use this post to throw in some ideas that may help parents, teachers and carers to cope with anger in children.

If you hate anecdotes, by all means skip to the bullet point below, but I’m including Jason’s story because he did such a brilliant job of teaching me how, given the chance, children can often find their own ways to deal with extreme anger.

The eight-year-old was beside himself in the days and weeks after his father’s death, from an alcohol-related illness.  He was violent, loud, abusive and unable to listen, concentrate, discuss or acknowledge his problem.  I found him prowling the school corridors with a dangerous glint in his eyes.

“Come on Jason,” I said. “Let’s go and have a chat.”

To my surprise, he followed me into the play room quite readily.

“Want to talk?” I asked, aiming to sound interested but ‘cool’.

Jason yelled, screamed a lot, thumped the sofa and swore profusely.  He clearly didn’t.

My Pet Monster

I threw him a cuddly toy monster – bright blue fur fabric body, a truly horrible face and wearing plastic handcuffs; ideal for expressing deep fears in a totally safe way – like Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.

“He looks really angry,” I said. “Maybe you could tell me a story about him.  I’ll write it down and draw it if you like.”

I suppose on some subliminal level I’d done the shrink bit and decided that Jason couldn’t handle his own emotions and needed to dump them somewhere else.  I could never have guessed what would follow, though.  It turned out to be a great example of how using puppets, toys, pictures and so on can help children to explore feelings they are unable to address in themselves.

“He’s a horrible monster!  He wants to KILL people.  He’s nasty and ugly and he should be sent to prison.”

He paused and looked at me.  “Draw the monster on your page.” he commanded.  “Write ‘His name is Bignose’ over the top.”

I made a lame but honest attempt to create some sort of likeness of the monster.  Jason continued to berate Bignose.  “Look at his face!  He’s really ugly.  Everyone says he’s horrible and he’s so angry, he just wants to kill everyone.  He ain’t got any friends.”

His mood softened slightly.  “That’s quite a good picture.  It looks just like him.  The hair’s a different red, but it doesn’t matter.”

Then, quite suddenly, he embarked on his story.  “ He used to be alright.  He was a dog.  He was all right then but he drank too much beer and whisky and that turned him into a monster.  Now the police are after him.  He has to go to prison because he’s so bad.”

(While he was saying this, Jason took the monster’s handcuffs off and placed them on himself.  Hmmm.)

He turned and took another cuddly toy – a rather demented but harmless looking red thing with lots of legs.  He told me it was a spider.

“Now draw the spider.  He’s scared of the monster.  The monster wants to eat him.  Draw him in his garden and do a fence – no – I’ll do it!  Give me the pens.  I’ll make a fence right round the spider, like this…”

I watched as Jason took great care to completely encircle the spider with closely packed, black fence panels.

“Now it looks like the spider’s in prison,” I commented.

“No!  He’s in his garden!  He likes the fence.  Draw a big smile on his face.  Write ‘The spider is happy because he is safe in his garden and the monster can’t get him.’  Now draw the handcuffs on the monster,” and, you’ve guessed it, he removed the remaining handcuff from his own wrist and put it on to the monster.

We don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell us what all that was about.

In a 15-minute session Jason had shown me his own uncontrollable anger, his guilt and self-disgust, his desire to be separated from the angry beast inside himself and his need for firm boundaries – the one thing that made him feel safe and happy.  Not a bad start.

 

So now to some practical strategies:

scream and shout

scream and shout (Photo credit: mdanys)

Expressing anger is important.  Ex-press, as in press it out of your body, rather than bottling it up and leaving it to simmer and grow until it finally explodes or leads to other problems.

When a child is having a fully-fledged tantrum or attack of rage, trying to ‘take them on’ doesn’t help.  I’ve tried to sit with them, telling them gently that I understand the feelings they have and reassuring them that although it feels bad right now, that feeling will pass.

Once they’ve calmed down a bit, I’ve asked them to work with me to come up with some safe and useful anger-management strategies that will work for that child.  I’ve given them the following list to test out.  They then rate each strategy from useless to helpful:

  • ‘Run out of anger’ – literally!  Get the kid racing round a playing field until they are gasping for breath, probably giggling, and able to tell you they’ve totally run out of anger.
  • ‘Draw out the anger’ – red and black are great colours and huge sheets of scrap paper or even old newspapers.  Experiment with crazy scribbling, ugly faces or whatever the child needs to express. (Try not to judge – Jason’s early attempts showed furious gun-toting gangsters on roller skates ‘so they can go fast and kill more people’ but after a few sessions his figures dispensed with the skates, then the guns and began looking sad and – eventually – calm.)
  • Hitting safely.  Crash mats, punch bags, cushions etc. are good – little brothers, pets and brick walls are not.  Discuss the golden rules – don’t hurt yourself or anything that’s alive.  One parent I know bought her son a drum kit!
  • Screaming into a pillow or in the shower.  Warning others in the house that you’re about to do this is often helpful, though.
  • Finding your own boundaries.  Unsurprisingly, this one worked well for Jason.  Walk round the bedroom/garden/school grounds, touching the walls or fences all the way around, telling yourself you’re in a safe place.
  • Safe throwing.  I’ve used a realistic-looking foam brick from a joke shop, but screwing up newspaper and hurling it at a target is just as good.
  • Shredding!  Our very understanding school secretary would often agree to hand over a stack of unwanted papers to one of the angry small people, who could sit and feed them into the shredder.  Very therapeutic!
  • Pounding play dough  – or bread mix, which can be put aside to rise and become light and airy, and eventually be transformed into something good.

Remember that strategies to control anger are exactly that.  I feel it’s important to keep checking back with the child: ‘How are you feeling now?  Has the anger gone away?’  Once they are feeling calm, the activity should stop.  It’s easy to get locked into throwing/screaming/hitting behaviours and that can actually cause more aggression.

A final word on what children can teach us about anger:

The friend who contacted me for advice commented on her young autistic son that the battle seemed always to be in his own head, rather than with anyone else.  I thought about that and realised that that’s where it really is with all of us.  People and situations don’t actually ‘make’ us mad.  We react to them and project our anger on to them.

In my experience, young children – and particularly those on the autistic spectrum – don’t blame others, they just look for ways to express their own feelings.  We should help and maybe learn from them.  Just look around the world at the crazy things that happen when righteous anger is projected on to other people…