Saturday, March 21, 2015

Curbing Anxiety with Validation, Humor, and a Plan

Have you ever woken up with that feeling that you're falling? Ever fall down the stairs, fall off your bike, or slip on the ice? Have you ever heard a fire alarm when it wasn't scheduled, smelled smoke, or had someone pop out and scare you? Has a car ever pulled out in front of you, cut you off, or ran a stop sign? Have you ever been really anxious, nervous, or scared about a big presentation coming up? That feeling in the pit of your stomach, it usually subsides after a while. But imagine living with that feeling on a regular basis or 24/7, or being a child who has not yet developed the coping skills to deal with it.

Imagine for a moment that you are woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of the glass breaking on your front door. You hear footsteps, breathing, and stumbles from downstairs. You hear things being thrown about, like someone is looking for something or someone. You are almost certain that someone has broken into your home. You begin to feel an adrenaline rush, and you are upset-- anxious, scared, angry, sad, etc.

Which response would you prefer to hear?

A. "It's not a big deal. Calm down."
B. "I know this is terrifying. I have a plan to get us out of here safely. Let's figure out how we're going to make this better."

Me, I'd rather hear Option B. Feelings were acknowledged or validated, and a plan was made. Option A might make me want to smack someone upside the head. [angelic smile]

It's easy to use validation in a situation where everyone believes the problem truly is a big deal-- but what about when someone doesn't agree with the other person's feelings? Can validation still be utilized?

Validation and agreement are not synonymous terms. 

I repeat: Validation and agreement are not synonymous terms. Didja get that? Validation and agreement are not synonymous terms.

We've all seen the three-year-old screaming over a dropped cookie. The thing we have to remember is, the feeling of grief and disappointment are completely new feelings for this little guy-- or maybe it's a familiar feeling with which he has never learned to cope. Should we tell him not to worry about it, that it's no biggie, or that he's making a big deal out of nothing-- when to him in that moment it is devastating?

The other problem is that we don't want him to have a meltdown every time things don't go his way. We don't want to reinforce a "dramatic" response. This is why people will tell him to stop, ignore him, or try to comfort him by telling him it's not a big deal. But to him, it is a HUGE deal.

Let's try to help the little guy cope. Let's try validation and a plan. I don't agree with him that dropping a cookie is the end of the world, but I need to teach him how to cope with this. So I say, "It sounds like you're really mad and sad, because you dropped your cookie. Am I right?" He may yell or cry, "Yeah!" So I can say, "It's okay to feel like that. It can feel sad to drop a cookie. But here's what we can do when that happens." Then, give him a plan. Teach him what he should do instead of having a meltdown.

Validation in Action

Last week, I witnessed a girl-- let's call her Sally-- having a meltdown. Her friend-- let's call him Johnny-- was not feeling well, so he put his head on his desk until his parents came to pick him up from school. Sally had developed a little crush on Johnny, and he was her closest friend in school. When Johnny put his head down and did not answer her, she felt like he stopped liking her. In her mind, she had lost a friend. She would have to sit alone at lunch, and nobody would ever like her again. She was doomed-- sentenced to a life of loneliness and despair. She would never have any friends, and... You get the idea.

As adults, we've all been there, done that, and we're thinking, "You're gonna be over this by tomorrow, and the two of you will be besties again in no time." So, in an attempt to calm her, we tried telling her not to worry about it, or we try to soothe her with, "He still likes you. He's just sick."

But that's the same thing as telling someone that there isn't a burglar in their house. They believe there is a burglar in the house, and someone saying there isn't... is not helping.

So I thought about validation and acknowledgement, and I gave it a go.

I said, "It sounds like you're really upset that Johnny didn't answer you." (Note, I never said, "I agree you should be upset that Johnny didn't answer you." I didn't agree; I acknowledged.)
Crying, she said, "Yes!"
I continued, "And you're probably feeling left out, alone, or rejected. Did I get that right?"
She stopped, looked at me, and said, "Yeah! I feel so alone!"
"I hear you," I said. "I want you to know that I'm here with you while you are going through this." (Again, I didn't agree; I validated.)
"Okay," she said, wiping her eyes.
"When you're ready, I have a couple ideas for how we can make this better," I told her. "But first, let's get our brains in a better place."
Then, I made a funny face, and I told her there's no laughing in school. We giggled for a minute or two, and then I talked to her about a fun breathing exercise I like to do, and I had her help me with it.
I said, "You look like you're doing a great job taking control of your emotions. You've calmed your body and voice. Nice work." (Let's help her feel good for a second.)
She half-smiled, and I said, "When you're ready, maybe we can try figuring out a plan together."
"I'm ready," she said.

That's when I was able to help her come up with a better plan for addressing these feelings. I was able to teach her how to cope, how to recall other times she coped, etc. I also explained that it's okay to feel angry and upset, but it's not okay to hit/throw things to express that. A better way to express it is by... Yadda yadda yadda. But, hey, part of being a kid is making mistakes and learning from them. Now we're prepared. Next time this happens, we know that we'll be okay, because we were okay last time. We also have a plan for improvement. We talked about how sometimes people need their space. We used empathy and imagined the situation through Johnny's eyes. We came up with some times that we felt sick and wanted to be left alone. We discussed what we could do for the rest of the day.

Use Validation, Humor, and a Plan.

Kids who have anxiety disorders, reactive attachment disorders, or kids who simply have not yet learned appropriate coping skills, need tools to help them-- not another person telling them to calm down. If telling them to calm down worked, they would have calmed down already. Plus, we don't want them to feel like, "I'm completely out of control, which feels bad. Now I'm in trouble for being out of control, which feels bad. AND I am not doing a good job calming down, which feels bad."

Ever notice how something seems like a huge deal at night but doesn't seem so bad in the morning? We can bring kids to the same place by distracting them for a minute, laughing, engaging them intellectually, etc.-- finding some way to get their brain to take a quick vacation, release a feel-good hormone, and then go back to the problem in a more rational way.

My husband is a police officer, and he used this strategy to de-escalate two angry drivers at an intersection. I told him he should try it on me the next time I feel like I'm the only one who does any chores around here, lol. ;)

So, next time you're faced with a situation like this, try these steps:
1. Acknowledge/validate the child's feelings.
2. Get some feel-good hormones pumping-- laugh, distract, etc.
3. Come up with a plan to make the situation better.

Do you have any similar experiences? Would you prefer to have your feelings validated? Share in the comments!