Impulse control is for everybody

You can be anyone and still face temptation to knock down the Jenga tower.

Impulses take many forms and have varying degrees of consequence, but you can be anyone and still face temptation to knock down the Jenga tower.

The start of another school year—a massive transition period in our family—inevitably marks the start of my six-year-old sensory kid’s battle with impulse control.

If you’re not familiar with the term “impulse control” as it relates to children with Sensory Processing Disorder (oh, and to everyone else on the planet) allow me to explain with a haiku:

I want to do this.

But I probably shouldn’t.

I’m doing it now!!!!

Most of us can admit to having issues around impulse control from time to time—we all have our triggers and weaknesses—and transitions are Charlie’s kryptonite.

Autumn, when we remove our toes from the sand and plant them in school shoes, generally brings the crazy. For all of us, yes, but my sensory kid feels it bigger and harder. When settling into a new routine, something happens in his brain that seems to wear down his nerves, making him just a little more raw than normal, a little unhinged.

Fall is a big departure from this. We go from dirt, sweat, sand and sun on our skin to covering up with lace-up shoes and school uniforms. Summer girl that I am, I come a little unhinged at the thought, too, so I can't fault Charlie for doing the same.

Fall is a big departure from this. We go from dirt, sweat, sand and sun on our skin to covering up with lace-up shoes and school uniforms. Summer girl that I am, I come a little unhinged at the thought, too, so I can’t fault Charlie for doing the same.

Sometimes transition behaviors surface predictably—flying off the handle at home when he doesn’t get his way. And other times, they are a wild card. Take, for example, the following tale.

“Mommy, Mrs. G says she needs to have a conversation with you,” a macabre Charlie informed me after school a few weeks ago.

I soon learned he had snapped the erasers off of a whole lot of classroom pencils.

“I kept finding all these erasers all over the place,” Mrs. G. explained. “And, finally, I realized what was going on. He wasn’t alone—there were others involved—but it appears Charlie was the main one. I already talked with him about it, I could tell he felt bad and he had a great day otherwise, so I don’t want him to get in trouble, but sometimes it helps to let the parents know so we can nip certain behavior in the bud.”

If only I knew how. My kid loves to break stuff. Even on a good day, he’s a destructobot. Charlie lives for the snap of a twig, the dismantling of a prized toy, the rip of paper, the cracking of plastic, the feel of his brother’s skin pinching between his fingertips, the energy released when one thing is made into two, the power of breaking something unbreakable with his own bare hands….

He knows it’s wrong, but he has a hell of a time stopping himself. It’s a daily challenge at home and, while he usually can keep himself together at school, during times of transition, he struggles with impulse control outside of home as well.

“Um, Andy inspired me to do it,” Charlie explains when I question him on the ride home. “But he just did one pencil. …And then I just sorta did a whole bunch more.”

“Hmm…I think I can see how that happened,” I say. “But you knew it was destructive, right? So why do you think you did it anyway?”

“I don’t know…I thought it was funny at first. And then I just couldn’t stop myself,” he says, the words tumbling rapidly from his mouth like boiling water.

“You know, Charlie, Mommy knows what that’s like. I’ve had this same problem before,” I say, trying to soothe him. “Sometimes there are things Mommy reeeeeally wants to do, but they’re not a very good idea, so I have to stop myself.”

Thankfully, I walked away from this vintage romper. But, don't worry, I sure did get the one-piece pantsuit in the background. I think I might be Zool for Halloween. (Aside: I snapped this special selfie for Kellie, who encouraged me in my hunt for an age-appropriate romper this summer. Unfortunately, I never found one and am yet uncertain of their existence.)

Thankfully, I stopped myself from this vintage romper. But, don’t worry, I now own the plum silk jumpsuit in the background. I might be Zool for Halloween. (Aside: I snapped this special selfie for Kellie, who steadfastly encouraged me in my hunt for an age-appropriate romper this summer and courageously gave me the thumbs down on more than one dressing room snapshot.) Unfortunately, I never found my mythical romper and am unconvinced of its existence.

“What do you mean? Why are they not a good idea?” he asks. (Also not a good idea: speaking about myself in the third person. He’s six. It’s time for pronouns.)

“Wellllll,” I draw out a pause long enough to gather the right words. “Sometimes I realize that things I want to do may have consequences that aren’t good for me or for people I care about. So I’ve had to try to stop myself from doing them.”

“Was it hard for you, Mommy?” he asks.

“Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes, no,” I say. “It depends on what it is. Sometimes, it’s easy. But other times, it’s reeeeeeally hard to stop myself.”

He regards me quizzically.

“This drive to do stuff and learning to decide when you need to stop yourself is something you may face your entire life,” I admit.

“My whole life?!” He’s incredulous, like, this simply cannot be. It can’t be.

“Yep. That’s why I want us to come up with tools for you to start learning how to do it while you’re young,” I say, deeply wishing I could tell him from experience that it would get easier.

Lookie here. It's a gelato party! Tip of the iceberg as far as my impulses are concerned.

Lookie here. It’s a gelato party! Tip of the iceberg as far as my impulses are concerned.

We immediately begin workshopping ideas for how he can stop himself from acting on potentially negative impulses. It’s not a perfect list, but if you’re looking for tools—for your sensory kid, or for your perfectly grown-up self—here’s what we came up with:

Sensory Kid tricks for interrupting an impulse

  • Get a cup of ice from the freezer and throw ice cubes off the back steps. Hard.
  • Thrash around on your bed punching the pillow till you get it all out.
  • Sing a song…an actual song, or a made-up song about the feelings you’re having.
  • Count to 10 and then think again about what it is you want to do.
  • Grab some sticks outside and break them into pieces.
  • Listen to heavy metal on Pandora and headbang till you feel better.
  • Tell the person you’re with how you’re feeling. Give the feeling words. (i.e., “I am so frustrated! I am really mad at you! I don’t like this at all! I reeeeeally want that! I feel impatient!” etc.)
  • Ask Archangel Michael to help. (Charlie’s selection. You could personally ask for any kind of divine intervention. Some ideas: your higher self, God, the Universe, your angels, Jesus, Mary, Goddess, Allah, your guides, your guru, a deceased grandma, the spirit of your favorite dead pet, etc. Whatever works!)
  • Take three deep, slow breaths.
  • Step outside and listen. Pick out as many sounds as you can.
  • Go stand next to a tree. Hug it, even.
  • Pet the dogs.
  • Ask for more divine intervention.
  • Rub some salt between your hands, take an Epsom salt bath or get in the tub and rub salt scrub on your feet (grainy textures sometimes help to take you out of the impulse and into the present moment.)
  • Go for hugs. The big, lingering, strong, don’t-let-go-till-you-feel-better variety.

We thrash to be still: A tale of detox after a tough day

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The sensory-magical power of bowling was revealed to us last weekend. Heavy lifting, gross-motor throwing, twirling around in slippery shoes on waxy wood floors. Both boys were in heaven. It was a dream. We went twice.

I knew it’d been a rough day at school by the way the teacher handed me the clipboard to sign Charlie out. Before she could share any details, he darted out the door toward the parking lot in an attempt to avoid the ultimate nightmare—mom and teacher converging to talk about his tough day. He couldn’t dematerialize fast enough.

Tough days are the same for kids as they are for grown ups, I think. Something not awesome happens. You make some sort of mistake. Someone gets upset. You feel in some way uneasy. You try to pull yourself out of it. But it’s hard. What does this situation say about me? How do I feel right now? What do I do about it? Maybe you keep getting reminded of your shortcoming. Maybe you’re not sure of how to recover, so maybe you keep messing up. Maybe you feel generally discombobulated. Maybe you don’t want to face anyone because you’re embarrassed. Maybe it’s just one of those days. In the end, it doesn’t matter what went down. It’s just a tough day.

I said some things—shamey, punitive things—to him as we walked to the car that weren’t my best parenting. Maybe I haven’t been my best in general lately. Maybe I’ve been having my own tough days. Maybe my cropped-up-out-of-nowhere, monolithic internal shifting has prevented me from showing up for my kids in the super-present, heart-centered way to which I aspire. Maybe I could’ve been trying harder. Maybe I could’ve done something proactive to prevent the overload of his sensory system that’s been causing him three tough days in a row at school. Maybe.

Chicago is going on 21 days of below-zero temperatures. It’s been nearly a month of no outdoor recess, no park play and no running around out front. Too cold. This doesn’t bode well for a kid who regulates his nervous system primarily through gross motor activities.

We’ve had a ton of snow, which is heaped in parallel strips through unplowed alleys and side streets. When the sun comes out, it melts ever so slightly, such that it softens to collect and later freeze in the tire wells of our car. Charlie likes to kick at these hardened deposits of grimy, icy snow before and after school. Sometimes they dislodge from his blows, which he relishes; sometimes they don’t.

We pulled into the garage after school yesterday afternoon and he began kicking, to no avail. I helped him get one of the ice blocks unglued from the car’s undercarriage and what happened next amazed me.

Charlie began kicking and stomping the ice block with ferocity. Oh. He is mad, I observed. Wow. He’s really fucking pissed off about something.

“Kick it, buddy,” I encouraged, considering he might need to express his emotions physically. “Stomp that ice chunk. That’s it. Get it.”

His fervor in kicking and stomping grew. With each chunk of ice he chipped, he seemed a little more consumed by it. I stood nearby watching him, being there with him in his expression.

“Hey, Charlie. Are you mad?” I asked gently. He just kept kicking, almost as though he couldn’t hear me. “Yep, you’re mad, aren’t you buddy?”

He looked up at me and nodded his head once before going back to the demolition.

“I totally get it,” I said, noticing a delightful cocoon forming around the two of us. “You know it’s ok to be mad, don’t you? You won’t get in trouble for feeling mad. Say it out loud, even. Let yourself feel angry. Let it out.”

“Ok!” he fired back at me. “I’m mad. I’m really, really mad.” He looked up and, through the anger, I saw his relief. We found another ice chunk, but this one was too stubborn for his boots to dent, so I picked up a skinny length of firewood and he used it to whack the ice into oblivion. We found some more ice. And when all the ice was fractured in pieces around the garage, he marched into the back yard, where he began thrusting piles of snow off the table, chairs and steps with sweeping arm movements.

I pressed him on why he was angry, and at whom. It was a short list of people, and I was on it. I told him I understood why he was mad, and that I knew it was a hard day for him. He didn’t say much. Just kind of growled. “You don’t have to talk about it, but if you want to, I’m here to listen,” I said. “Or you can growl, or yell or whatever feels right to you. This is a safe space for that.”

He went to the trampoline, jumping and kicking at piles of snow, sweeping it away with a ceremonious combination of punches and footwork. On the stairs, he kicked at the ice buildup on the sides. Kip got a little too close and I encouraged him to steer clear of Charlie’s thrashing. “Kip, stand back,” Charlie cautioned. “I am like a ball of fire right now.”

He thrashed around the yard, strumming tiny icicles from their place under the back stairs, kicking at ice and whooshing his arms around wildly through piles of snow for a good 10 minutes. I could hear his breath from a few feet away. All throughout, I acted like a congregant at that Baptist church we’ve visited a few times.

That’s it.

Mmmhmm.

Do your thing.

I feel you.

All right, now.

That’s how you do it.

I got you.

Finally, with a touch of flair, he yanked his hat from his head, handed it to me and heaved a sigh. “I think I’m done, Mommy,” he said, the sweetness back in his face. “I’m ready to go inside. I feel so much better now.”

After the thrashing, we snuggled and played into evening, and we talked about what to do when he’s feeling overloaded at school. The next day, his teacher handed me the clipboard and tossed her hands in the air. “Well, today was much better,” she reported, baffled. “I have no idea why, but it was.”

I guess kids aren’t much different from adults on this front. After a tough day, sometimes the best medicine is to call it what it is, give yourself room to be mad (reeeeally mad, if need be), get your heart rate up to flush it out of your body and then go for hugs.

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While Brian was at a meditation retreat all weekend in Encinitas, Calif., this trio took to the bowling alley. After a rousing game, we huddled together for a photo. (it’s really too bad the scoreboard doesn’t show, because yours truly bowled an impressive 130. I felt sufficiently awesome about that. Grandpa Fogel would’ve been proud.)