At a recent (virtual!) parenting group, Callie, shared this story: My 3 year-old son Jasper has a really hard time when his older siblings won’t let him play with them.  It becomes so unpleasant for everyone in the house.  All Jasper wants to do is join in, and sometimes Grant and Sophie lets him.  But then it always ends the same way: Grant and Sophie want to do something alone, and Jasper ends up screaming and crying and kicking in the hallway.  When I try to help, he yells “I hate you get away from me!”  I’m really not sure what to do.  

Ugh, I’ve been there.  Literally peeling one of my kids off the hallway floor after sibling rejection.  There’s nothing to do to immediately fix the situation.  I understand that my oldest kids don’t want to include their younger sibling all the time, and I understand that my younger child hates being left out.  So, in this and so many other “unwinnable” situations, here’s what we’ve got: We can co-author a story with our child.

Co-Author a Story… what do I mean? So glad you’re inquiring because this is one of my very favorite techniques to use in my house when my kids are upset. Let’s first zoom out from Jasper, Sophie, and Grant to get a fuller understanding of this technique, and then we’ll come back and practice it with Callie.

When a child is having big overwhelming feelings (i.e., a tantrum), we often look to reassure them (“you’re ok!”) or offer of an answer to their problems (“You can play with me instead!”).  We have these impulses because, often, we want to take away our anguish at witnessing their anguish, but children haven’t learned yet to be bothered by their distress and are looking for something else.  When feeling overwhelmed and upset, children don’t need to feel better; they first need to feel safe and the later need to understand their feelings.  I’ll be more specific: what children need more than anything is to build a coherent narrative, which is a fancy way of saying a story that makes sense about their experience.

Co-authoring the story of your child’s feelings enables a child to slow down the circuit in which a stimulus (in Jasper’s case, being rejected by his siblings) leads to a reaction (kicking, crying, screaming).  By helping a child create a coherent narrative, you are changing a frantic, out of control, harsh reaction (tantrum!) into a slow, soft, compassionate, understandable process.  This means everything in the emotion regulation world, as kids who learn to slow down to recognize their feelings become excellent self-soothers as they grow up.

Ok, let’s go back to Callie and Jasper and I’ll be more specific about what I mean by Story Telling.  Callie takes Jasper to his room and sits with him, not doing much but breathing deeply and saying “I am here with you” very slowly (read here about times parents need to provide physical and emotional containment for their dysregulated children – it’s a very important technique!).  Once Jasper starts to regulate – you’ll notice he has a softer voice, slower breathing, loosening of his body posture – a parent can start the Co-Authoring a Story method.  It might start like this:

Callie (speaking very slowly and in a soft voice): I want to tell the story about what just happened… it was so important … and I want to really understand every single thing.  Ok… so you were playing with Grant and Sophie, and I’m sure you were having a ton of fun.  Then they said that wanted to trade Pokemon cards and be alone in Grant’s room… (make a sighing, “ugh” sound).  Then you felt really big feelings which were too big for your body so they came out as kicking and screaming and laying on the floor.  Then I asked to help, but everything felt so bad that you didn’t want help.  Then we came to your room together… did I get that right?

Likely, Jasper nods or adds a part of the story that you missed. Maybe Jasper says, “Grant and Sophie always do that to me, kick me out at the best part!”  And then this is where you play eager scientist, so interested in this newly discovered piece of data.

Callie: Oooooh, I’m so glad you added that! I had missed that and that is so important! So (slowing down pace) let me start from the beginning because it is so important to get it exactly right. (now, back to slow tone). So you were playing with Grant and Sophie, having a super fun time.  Then they said that wanted to trade Pokemon cards and be alone in Grant’s room.  And this would have been the best part! And you feel like Grant and Sophie always do this, they always ask you to leave when it’s the most fun. Then you felt really big feelings which were too big for your body so they came out as kicking and screaming and laying on the floor.  Then I asked to help, but everything felt so bad that you didn’t want help.  Then we came to your room together… did I get that right? Jasper nods.  Doesn’t add anything.

Ok, but here’s the thing… you’re STILL not done. You do it AGAIN.  Yup, again.  Repeat repeat repeat. You might start again by saying:

Callie: Ok, great. But let me say it again because this is such an important story and I really want to have all the pieces together…

I’ve been known to repeat the story 5 or 6 times even after I have it “right.”  And each time, I watch my child feel calmer.  I’m telling him that I understand him.  That I accept him.  That his feelings are real.  That he’s not crazy.  That I love him.  That there’s always a longer more complicated story underneath his seemingly “difficult” behavior.  Each time you repeat the story, you are helping a child ­co-regulate his feelings in the moment; co-regulation today builds self-regulation in the future.

Here is a key point for the Co-Authoring a Story method: the words have to be spoken so softly and so slowly.  Soft and slow are an antidote to the nature of tantrums, which are immediate and intense. Jasper, and any kid who has a tantrum, can go from rejection to meltdown in an instant. Think about it: for kids who struggle with dysregulation, the amount of time between stimulus (“No, we can’t stop for ice cream”) and response (screaming, kicking, crying, flailing, etc.) totally disappears.  Which is why these moments leave us, as parents, feeling like “What?!??! What just happened? Weren’t we good a second ago?”

The antidote for the speed of tantrums is slowing down time by telling a story over and over again.  The only difference between “No, we can’t stop for ice cream” leading to an immediate meltdown versus leading to “Aw… really? I really want it! That stinks. Maybe tomorrow?” is inserting a pause after the initial disappointment.

Try This at Home:

Find a time this week to Co-Author a Story with your child.  If your kids are anything like mine, you’ll have plenty of challenging moments (examples: meltdown, tantrum, protest), so chose one to use as the subject matter for this story building exercise. It’s ok if you don’t think to do it right away.  Sometimes, the Co-Authoring method is most effective hours later, once the situation isn’t so “hot.”  Try to talk to your child after dinner time, maybe starting with, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about earlier today… let’s talk about it… I want to really understand together each thing that happened.”  You may need to explicitly say to your child, “No one is in trouble! No lecture coming! Just want to put the pieces together…”

One last point. People often ask me, “Ok, so after you tell the story, then should I tell my kid what to do differently next time? Like I tell the story 5 times, but then tell my child, “Maybe next time you could find me in the kitchen before you start screaming and kicking.”  Here’s the truth: I feel mixed on this.  I think it’s unnecessary, mostly because once kids start getting help slowing down, they tend to think – on their own! – of pretty good solutions.  And there’s a risk of undoing all the work you just did in co-authoring the story if your kid leaves the moment feeling like this whole “understanding me thing” was just a rouse for “telling me what to do.”  So, my gut says to leave out the advice or concrete guidance after the story telling.  Let me know how it goes for you!