Eddie’s story: “But I don’t WANT to stop hitting you!”
I love Eddie’s story not just because it shows how he learned to self-regulate, but also because Eddie, who was only 5, was so clear about how he felt when he was asked to go to his Cool-Down Space!
Eddie’s mom described Eddie as “defiant, lacking in empathy, and violent.” “Eddie resorts to hitting, punching and throwing much of the time,” his other mom told me. “We have to restrain him when he gets really angry, but that feels hurtful and it makes Eddie even angrier because he feels like he’s being dominated.”
Eddie’s two moms had tried sticker charts as a way to reward Eddie for listening and getting through the day without a meltdown; they had tried consequences; and they had also tried Connection. “We’ve used Patty Wipfler’s approach to help Eddie feel more connected to us, so he’ll be more complaint,” one mom said. “But when we give him undivided attention, he doesn’t want that to stop. It makes transitioning to the next thing that much harder. And to be honest, we get triggered when he’s violent – especially when he hurts the baby! And that makes it harder to connect with him.”
Although I didn’t believe that Connection would solve Eddie’s defiance and aggression, I didn’t argue with his parents. “Working with tools to stop the meltdowns makes perfect sense,” I told them. “But as a first step, let’s just help him to express his anger safely.” I wanted Eddie’s two moms to know that it was OK if he got really mad – but it wasn’t OK for him to hurt them, the baby, or anyone’s things!
But while Eddie’s moms understood the value of a Cool-Down Space for Eddie, they said it wouldn’t work. “Eddie will just get more frustrated if we have him go to a Cool-Down Space, and he’ll throw things and break things,” one mom said. And knowing that Eddie’s bedroom could be an ideal space to “contain” this impulse, I asked her, “OK, if his Cool-Down Space was in his room, what would we need to do to his room to make it so it’s OK to throw things?” Eddie’s parents agreed that the Cool-Down Space could work if they removed things like books or framed pictures from his room; and they also made Cool-Down Spaces for themselves, so they could model this strategy for Eddie.
And as is the case in a lot of the families I work with, at first, Eddie wouldn’t use the Space without help from his parents. His two moms had to carry him to his Cool-Down Space, and Eddie’s anger only escalated when his aggression prevented them from staying with him. And as I explain in my book, Your Rules Are Dumb, it was normal for Eddie to be frustrated when his parents removed themselves as targets – but as it turned out, I didn’t have to explain this to his parents, because Eddie explained it for me! Eddie was able to articulate his feelings – that he hated having to go to his Cool-Down Space, not because he felt rejected and sad or lonely, but because he didn’t want to stop fighting with his moms.
“It’s so great that Eddie was able to share that with you,” I told them. “This is really common, and I see it a lot in the kids I work with – in the beginning, a child who’s fighting with you is going to become more frustrated if you say No to that.” And I also explained that kids with Eddie’s temperament tend to enjoy and really crave a high level of intensity in their relationships and social interactions – and this was another reason Eddie wanted to fight with them.
I then showed Eddie’s parents how they could wrestle or “play-fight” with Eddie in a way that would satisfy his need to engage with his moms in a powerful, physical way, and at first this was a challenge for one mom, because she was very opposed to fighting and she associated wrestling or “play-fighting” with actual fighting and violence. But I helped her to see the play not as violence but as an intentional process by which Eddie could express and release his anger – and I also emphasized that the parents should never encourage this play when he was in the throes of a violent meltdown – and this meant his parents wouldn’t engage with him when he was trying to hurt them.
And it didn’t take long before Eddie’s meltdowns decreased! I had been working with Eddie’s parents for just three weeks when Eddie began to go to his Cool-Down Space on his own. He was learning to express his anger without doing damage; the intense physical play with his parents satisfied his need to fight; and he was feeling more in control as his parents learned to give him a voice in the family’s plans and decisions. By the third week of the Wits’ End coaching program Eddie was having fewer meltdowns and the meltdowns were also much shorter, lasting five minutes instead of thirty. Eddie was also encouraging his moms to use their Cool-Down Space when they got mad! And Eddie’s moms were surprised by and really impressed with his ability to problem-solve with them when he and they disagreed, or there was an unexpected change in plans. “I’m really surprised at Eddie’s maturity,” his mom said. “Of course I know he’s really bright, but I’m amazed at what a good problem-solver he is. And I guess I never really expected someone with such big feelings to be this good at self-regulation!”