Pediatric occupational therapists are usually all-in when it comes to using physical methods to help children achieve affective modulation. We use the Wilbarger Protocol, Astronaut Training, Therapeutic Listening, and more. But are we using Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block techniques? Not so much. All that talking seems like something a teacher or psychologist should do. Folks, it’s time to climb off that platform swing and look at all of the ways children develop state regulation. Early development is the time when children experience attunement with caregivers and create secure attachment. But this is a learning process that grows over time and can be damaged by events and by brain-based issues such as ASD. The Happiest Toddler on the Block techniques aren’t billed as such, but they are the best methods to create attunement and attachment while teaching self-regulation skills that I have found. Combined with sensory-based treatment, progress can be amazing!
Research has told us that the way we interact with children and the way they feel has direct effects on neurotransmitters and the development of autonomic reactivity. If you don’t believe me, check out Stephen Porges’ work on the ventral vagal component of the autonomic nervous system.
When we use The Fast Food Rule, Toddler-Ese and Patience Stretching ( Use The Fast Food Rule to Help ASD Toddlers Handle Change and Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! ) to get a child focused, calm, listening, and recognizing that we “get them” even if we don’t agree with their toddler demands, we shift more than behavior. We shift their neurophysiological responses that can become learned pathways of responding to stressors of all kinds. We are using our social interactions to create neurobiological regulation. I believe that the use of Happiest Toddler techniques can make a significant neurophysical change in a young child even before we put them on a swing. I am going to go out (further) on a limb and say that if our interactions aren’t informed by understanding attunement and engagement, our sensory-based treatment might be seriously impaired.
Long story short: if you aren’t using effective methods of developing social-emotional attunement and engagement with young children, your treatment isn’t taking advantage of what we now know about how all children learn self-regulation. And if the child you treat has ASD, SPD, trauma from medical treatment, etc…..you know how important it is to use every method available to build the brain’s ability to respond and self-regulate.
Children start learning self-regulation early. Most kids eventually become reasonably skilled at it, given some help from loving adults. The problem is they don’t learn it quickly. Self-regulation takes a long time to become established in the slowly-developing brain of a young child. While you are scooping up the puddle of Jell-O that used to be your toddler before she dropped her ice cream cone, think about how you can use this moment to build her ability to come back to a calm state:
Reflect her emotions without denying them or taking them on. After all, you know that it isn’t the end of the world. But at that moment, she can’t see it. She is sad and maybe even angry. Use the Fast Food Rule Use The Fast Food Rule For Better Attunement With Your Child to state what happened and how you think she feels. Remember to use lots of gestures and alter your vocal tone to convey empathy. Don’t be placid; after all, she needs to know that you get how unhappy this has made her. Kids tune into your expressions much more than your words at this age. You may think you should be soothingly quiet, but she is thinking ” You don’t see my pain!!”
Make sure she knows that you care about what happened, and use this moment to identify what she is feeling. Even if you intend to get her another cone, allowed her to be upset for a very brief period, and let her know that we call that feeling “sad”. Kids depend on us to explain what happened to the dinosaurs, how to eat with a fork, and also how to identify and manage emotions. Take that moment to explain that there is a name for what she is feeling, and that it is normal and understandable, even if you intend to fix it with another ice cream.
Ask her if she wants another ice cream cone, but not too soon. Sometimes children aren’t ready for our solutions, even if they do want them, and presenting one too early gives a message that we never intended: I can’t handle your pain, you can’t either, and I need to fix it right away. Look for that shift in body language, eye contact or verbal connection that tells you she is starting to pull herself together before you jump in with a solution.
If you find yourself more upset than your child, their pain ripping through you, take a moment to look inside and see what experiences in your past are contributing to this feeling. You may have been taught the same lesson early in your own childhood. If you received the message that pain is unbearable and should be avoided at all costs, you are not alone. Well, I am going to tell you that an important part of your life, and a part of your child’s life is all about learning to feel feelings without fear and come back to a good place after a difficult experience.
Bad things happen to us all, and the most important lesson you can teach your child at this moment is that she can handle this feeling and come through it. With your support, and with the support of other people who love her, she will get through the loss of her ice cream and other losses in life as well.
And it can start with how to handle the loss of an ice cream cone….!