Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Decoding troubled children

My “secret code” game allows children to understand their minds while having fun.

Mindfulness can help troubled children identify and understand mental states, which is the first step in their healing process. Rather than approaching a child as an authoritative adult trying to control behavior, I’ve created a game where the child feels he is in control. Because it is a game, the child is more engaged and more likely to use these mindfulness skills in daily life.

First I ask the child if he wants to create a "secret code" (the answer is always YES). Then I have him choose two or three colors for the code. The child decides who knows the secret code (parents should be “in” on it but the child should be the one to share it with them). The child can tell their friends and teachers if they wish. For the purpose of this article, I'll choose the colors red, yellow and green (like a traffic light). The color red will represent negative mental states that manifest as destructive behavior. When a child is acting out, he is “code red.” Humans are social animals so I explain to the child that when I see code red, I'll know that the child wants to be left alone. I do this because children who act out at school are isolated from normal classes and often from potential friends. Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder may end up in Juvenile Hall. For some children, their code red is so severe that they need to be physically restrained. In this case, instead of leaving the child alone, you can use the language “Your code red is telling me that you don't want to play (a board game, for example).” It's important that the child makes a connection between code red and losing privileges, but it's also critical that the loss of privileges is communicated in a neutral, caring tone that demonstrates that the adult is not judging the child.

Code green represents healthy, kind or disciplined behavior. I'll tell a child that when he’s “code green,” I’ll know that he wants to spend time with me having fun. It's important to reward code green with praise, attention and social interaction. Two colors are probably enough to start with but if the child wants to have a more complicated code by all means, let him create it (be sure to keep a copy of the colors for yourself so you don't forget the code -- your participation is critical). Allowing the child to choose the colors and the code gives him ownership of the game and his healing process.

While using the “secret code," I remain neutral and non-judgmental toward the child's mental states. This is important for two reasons. Firstly I am modeling the behavior I want the child to emulate, so I want to model self-control and keep a lid on my own negative emotional reactions. The second reason is that I want the child to understand his reactions -- not feel guilty about them. If this game lowers a child's self-esteem, then that child will lose interest in the secret code very quickly and understandably so!

When the child acts out I respond with, “I see you're in code red so I’ll give you some space. I'll be in the next room. When you're code green, come get me and we'll play a game.” This reinforces the idea that negative behavior pushes people away while good behavior attracts friends. The next time the child acts out, I'll ask, “What code are you?” If the child says “code red,” I'll say with a neutral tone, “Okay, no problem. I'll go in the next room.” If the child doesn't want me to leave, that opens an opportunity for dialogue about their mental state. If the child does want to be alone, my respecting his wish and leaving the room proves to the child that the “secret code” game is real. I postpone dialogue in order to win the child's trust.

If the child wants me to stay, I may say, “Okay, but in order to stay, I have to see code green. What does code green look like?” It's important to be patient and not judgmental at this stage and let the child figure it out. Don't tell him how he should act. The transition between mental states will be slow at first. If the child can't switch gears, I'll ask, “How does code red feel in your body? Where do you feel it?” Most likely it will feel like muscle tension and heat, but don't correct the child. Just listen. Once the child can observe the sensations in their body, you can suggest that the child take one breath and watch the air move in and out (a natural breath, not slow or fast). When it’s over, ask the child how watching the breath affected the physical sensations. Try observing a few more breaths together. Have the child describe how their physical sensations change. At a certain point, you can say, “Guess what? I think you're code green! Am I right?” The child will usually be amazed as well.

“How does code green feel?” Asking a child to notice how they feel in code red and green is an important part of their healing process. Healthy, kind, disciplined behaviors always feel better but many children (and adults) don't realize that until they take the time to notice. At first the child will assume code red will feel better than code green. When he discovers the reverse, he may be very surprised. Over time, the child will choose code green for this reason -- because it feels better! If a child notices anything about code red, be sure to praise him for what he observes (don’t correct him). By praising the child for their mindfulness of negative mental states, you're laying a foundation for self-esteem and greater insight into his mind. When anger is no longer “bad,” but something fascinating to explore and understand, negative emotions become gateways to code green. Over time the transition will be faster.

Once the child has a handle on codes red and green, try introducing code yellow. Code yellow is hard to catch. You can set the stage for this new challenge by saying to the child, “You’re ready for the next level of the secret code game!” It's very exciting. Code yellow is the cause of code red. When code red happens, now I not only say “I see you're in code red” but add with a neutral tone “What was your code yellow?” The child may pause for a moment in the middle of acting out to think about it. Be patient and wait for a reply. When he shares, say, “Well, isn't that interesting! Very good! Your mind is getting so much stronger. You can see more and more. Are you proud of yourself because you should be!” You can also say, “Oh yes, I've had that code yellow too.” The child will be very interested to hear about your negative mental states and over time will start to identify not only his own codes, but yours as well. Celebrate this! Do not get offended if the child catches you in a code red or yellow. Use it as a teaching moment by asking the child, “You're right. I'm in code red/yellow. What should I do?” Let the child fix you. This makes the game fun for him. He'll probably tell you to breathe or ask you how it feels in your body. It's fun to say, “I have tension in my arms and back and it's so painful. What should I do?” As the child is teaching you, he is reinforcing his own mindfulness as well.

Over time, the color codes train the child to use language -- rather than acting out -- to get what they need. “I'm code red” becomes “I'm trying not to be angry right now, but I can't help it!” You can relate to this, right? Tell the child you understand and that we all lose control of our emotions sometimes. Tell the child how wonderful it is that he can talk about emotions because then you understand what he needs and how to create happiness. Then look for opportunities to change anger into something funny. For example, paint funny pictures of what you look like when you're really mad. Compare your picture to the child's. If you both laugh, hang them on a wall! A moment of anger becomes a moment of bonding. The next time the child's blood boils, he'll remember how he laughed the last time, and that memory will ease his transition to code green.
Ellen McCarty is a mindfulness instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at http://www.ellenmccarty.com/ or follow her status updates on Facebook at "Ellen McCarty, Mindful Youth."
Copyright 2011 by Ellen McCarty