Nov 16, 2010
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Holiday time can literally tear a family apart, when there is a child in the family who’s active, noisy or withdrawn behaviors make hosts ask anxiously if you are bringing your child along.

My son would run, instead of walk. He would climb, jump, poke others, wrestle, stamp, and roll on the floor instead of sitting quietly. He shouted and laughed instead of talking quietly. He wanted to go everywhere and touch everything, instead of folding his hands neatly in his lap. This works fine at summer parties on the beach, parties held at the playground and at the zoo. It is a different matter when winter season parties get going in full swing. It got to the point that I realized most of what I said to my son was designed to suppress his movement, vocalizations and exuberance.  I loved my son’s exuberance and his appetite for an active life. He brought fun into every moment I spent with him, but his level of activity was driving people away from him, and he needed to learn to be part of a functioning group.

What to do?

I decided to enlist the help of my son in helping our family- with all of its members-  be welcome guests over the winter months. I wanted to help him realize the delicate interpersonal dance going on between others and himself, and to help him learn to match his actions to the situation.

It takes a lot of patience to go over the same thing 1,000 times. Maybe one million times, is a more realistic count of the effort needed. But, whatever it took, I wanted to give my son the tools he needed to use over  the rest of his life; and I figured that we had at least 18 years to practice them together before he went out on his own.  It can be difficult to continue to use a calm and positive voice when it seems that doing so gets you nowhere. However, I knew that if my son felt I was judging him or growing angry with him that he would learn to avoid people and social settings, instead of enjoy them. I wanted to help him fit in, not withdraw. So I did not punish him, create a ‘token society’ or a point system. My education (rather than training) had to be done in a calm, predictable way that modeled the very social style of behaviors that I wanted my son to learn.

I divided the tasks into three areas:

1. What I had to do to prepare before I started working with my son

2. What information I was willing to share with others about what I was doing

3. What would be the most effective way of sharing the information with my son

The outcome goal was that my son would learn monitor himself, while seeing himself as a pro-social, welcome and well-liked member of the group.

Below I will share what I came up with. Maybe come portion of it will be helpful to you.

I. What I had to do to prepare before I started working with my son

1. I had to observe my son to see exactly what he was doing and try to figure out why

2. I had to list the exact point at which his actions began to bother others and how I could tell

3. I had to figure out how to keep the parts of his behavior that were helping him get along with others and express himself, while helping him ‘put a lid on it’ when his exuberance was too much.

4. I had to be sure I was right about everything before starting so that I would not suddenly give my son conflicting instructions. I had to be well prepared ahead of time so that I would stay consistent.

II. What information I was willing to share with others about what I was doing

1. I didn’t want my family or our friends to see my son as ‘damaged’. So anything I said had to help create a view of him that showed he was ‘OK’

2. But I had to enlist the help of the people we visited to let them know that their reactions were key in helping their guest learn which behaviors were and which were not working well.

III. Figuring out the most effective way of sharing the information with my son

1. I had to figure out the best time to do the teaching

2. I had to figure out how to give feedback to my son in such a way that it  would not supress his joy and friendly feelings for people; while still helping him realize that he could not just give in to his urge to act.

My Educational Program:

1. When I tucked my son in bed every night (after a steady and non-rushed routine of bath, tooth-brushing and a few stories) I spent about 15 minutes sitting on the edge of his bed rubbing his back and talking with him.

a. I asked him to tell me all about his day (even if we spent it together).

b. Together we talked over the high and low points of the day and discussed why things went well (when they did) and what could have made things better (when things did not go well).

c. We said a prayer thanking God for our day and our many blessing and asking God to help us to be able to make it a good day tomorrow.

2. In the morning after a kiss and going through the whole dressing process, we would sit at the table and I would go over with him what we would be doing during the day. I would briefly discuss with my son the right way to fit in with others at each of the parts of the day that we had planned. For example, we use our “inside voices” in one setting and our “outside voices” in another. We keep our hands off other people and off of other people’s things. Ask first. Wait for an answer before touching. We listen to hear if our feet are making noise. We look at the faces of others. We practiced their happy looking faces and their angry faces and what it means when they won’t look at us at all. We discussed that we knew we could not do it perfectly, but that we were going to work hard at it again today.

3. I let our hosts know we were working on good manners. I asked them to help by offering encouragement if they noticed my son was doing something they liked. They did not have to go to any special effort; they might just smile at him if he was quiet or helpful.

4. I took my son to the park to tear around all over the equipment for 15 – 30 minutes before going to someone’s house. I found ways to get my son away from the group if it looked like he was not going to be able to keep up the “fitting-in business” much longer. For example if he sat still in the living room until I could see him wiggling in exasperation I asked if the host needed to have the sticks picked up in the yard. Then we would go out and spend 5 minutes gathering the sticks (with a few fast and furious laps around the yard to be sure we didn’t miss any) and then return to the party, ready to sit still again. I asked my son to volunteer to pass the food out, collect used napkins and plates and even brush the dog. Whatever type of activity might keep him busy in a helping manner. I brought him a quiet toy to play with as a last resort. My goal was to give him a way to MOVE in a pro-social and helpful way, so I considered it unhelpful to have him play with a toy in isolation, but I did it when I had to.

5. If my son momentarily lost the ability to monitor himself, I took him aside and asked him to look at the adults and children nearby to see if he could tell by their faces what they were feeling like. We guessed reasons why they might have the feelings they had. We discussed what he could do to make a person’s unhappy face relax into a smile.

I started this educational process when my son was three. I was still attending Boy Scouts with him at age 7 and engaging him in this learning process. But by the time he was 10 he was able to fit in well enough that I heard from other parents that they liked him. He had many invitations to friends’ homes, and was popular with the other kids at school.  I would like to be able to tell you that the process was easy, permanent and contained. However, the truth is that my son at 30 still is the same highly active, thrill-seeking soul underneath a cool exterior. We try to channel the thrill seeking behaviors toward skiing , extreme kayaking, and mountain bicycle racing, but the shadow side (street car racing, not filing taxes, and drunk driving) are still constant dangers we have to mindfully discuss and avoid on a continuing basis.

Author: Tanya

  • Mile-HighDads

    Please do not forget the huge Sugar intakes kids often get over the holidays may bring out unintended traits. A small person way mean well from the get go, but candies from family members and friends may bring out a “crazed monkey” over the holidays; and we as active parents need to monitor how much sugar is ingested because little Billy or Sally will keep eating it till they complain that their belly hurts.

  • Tdw

    Oh, you are so right! People give children all types of things that make it harder for them. So much to watch out for! Thanks for sharing. Tanya