Finding Normal: Abnormal times require new strategies

By Macaile Hutt

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I help children find success and independence in any of their “occupations” – the things they do every day. Occupations could be as simple as bathing, using the bathroom, feeding ourselves, or dressing ourselves. They can also be more complex, such as the way we interact with those around us socially, the way we regulate our nervous systems when we are overwhelmed, or the way we express our emotions, needs, and feelings.

The past year and a half has really taken a toll on the way we engage in all of our occupations, as we have been surrounded by so much fear and uncertainty and it’s been difficult to find a good routine. I wanted to share some things we have found to be helpful in our clinic to navigate these crazy times and find some sort of “normal” in these very unprecedented times. What’s NORMAL anyway?!

Talk about it – In an attempt to protect our children, we often try to shelter them from our feelings or fears. This can be helpful to some degree, but learning to loosen the reigns on our need to protect and let our kids in on how we are feeling can actually serve as a really great lesson in identifying feelings and emotions. While we don’t have to go into crazy details about all of our fears and concerns, saying something as simple as, “I feel nervous sometimes when we are in public now because it’s been so long since we have been in the same room with so many people. It kind of makes my ears hurt to hear so much talking! Do you ever feel the same way?”

This can open the door for a great conversation about fears, feelings, and how we learn to navigate changes with our little ones. This also provides safety by letting them know it’s okay to feel their own feelings and learn to express them in a productive way. Narrating our feelings can feel silly at first, but as the whole family begins to catch on, it can really start to serve everyone involved. Beginning a sentence with “I feel…” can be disarming to those around us and help people feel less of a need to be defensive and more inclined to listen and become part of our team. This also helps children start to identify what each of his or her own feelings feels like and how to identify it by the appropriate name.

Another example of what this narration might look like would be saying to the child: “Hey, buddy, it looks like you are feeling overwhelmed in this loud store. I can tell because your body is getting really wiggly and you’re having a hard time listening. Would it help if I gave you a big hug or do you want to help me push the cart to get some of those wiggles out?” Offering suggestions also helps children begin to learn what their body needs in these moments so they can eventually begin to ask for it or seek it out themselves.

Make time for heavy work – “Heavy work” is a term often used for activities that increase our proprioceptive input. Proprioception is our body’s ability to recognize where it’s at in space. Oftentimes, if a child is seeking proprioceptive input, he or she will press their body into yours, quite literally bounce off the walls, or play really rough in an attempt to get this need met. We can increase our proprioceptive input through both “pushing” or joint compression and “pulling” or joint traction tasks.

Some examples of pushing/compression tasks would be hopping, wheelbarrow walk, chair push-ups while seated (great for school or mealtime) or pressing arms against a wall and trying to “push” the building an inch. If children get overstimulated easily in stores or public spaces I will recommend the whole family tries to “push the store” to try and move it from the outside for 30 seconds or so before entering. This small task can give a little body enough input to regulate and ground itself before entering a busy store with lots of sensory input. I will also suggest bunny hopping to and from the car or wheelbarrow walking between errands if appropriate and safe to do so.

Some examples of pulling/traction tasks include hanging from a tree branch or gymnastics/pull-up bar, pulling a laundry basket filled with books or other weight-appropriate items with a belt attached while walking backward, or swinging from a trapeze bar or other suspended object. Everybody is different and it can take some trial and error to determine the approach to heavy work that is best received by your child. Adding these tasks into the day can help regulate big feelings and emotions and allow for successful and positive interactions in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and unknowns.

Separate from your worry – I am a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional for Children and Adolescents (CCATP-CA) and I studied from Lynn Lyon’s approach, which I love and highly recommend. This approach allows us to separate ourselves from the big feelings we experience, giving them a name and helping us predict not only when these feelings might show up, but also help us learn what we can do in these situations to recover and feel safe and successful. An example of this applied to real life might be a child who struggles a lot with separating from caregivers, worries significantly when parents or siblings aren’t within direct sight, or struggles with falling asleep alone at night.

The first step in separating from our worry is naming the worry. Children are AMAZING and so creative at this! Some names my clients have come up with include Shadow, Invader-Force, Darkness, and Angry Alien. Any name that helps the child separate and identify this feeling within him or her is suitable. Once we have named this part, whether it be the angry part, the worry part, the scared part, or the anxious part, we can start to recognize when it shows up within ourselves and within others. This is a great family activity to help everyone learn more about themselves and their feelings. We learn that these feelings show up in a predictable way, and that we can face them with strength and fearlessness, and we can defeat them. I ask parents to start writing down or celebrating all the times someone defeats this force.

“Shadow showed up when we got to the store and we still went in and got everything we needed! I’m so proud of you!”
“Invader-Force tried to ruin dinner but you are so much stronger than your force and you stayed so calm and asked me for a break instead of hitting sister or throwing food. You’re awesome!”
“My angry alien tried to show up today when I was in traffic but I thought about how hard you are working on defeating your angry alien and I told the alien to go away! Thank you for helping me learn how to choose my own thoughts more wisely!”

I’ve seen this approach work wonders and really help children and their families find success within their own thoughts, feelings, and fears. These forces will always show up, they are always going to be lurking in the shadows of our minds, but we are strong enough to defeat them every single time.

I wish I had all the answers for navigating the crazy changes we’ve all been facing lately, but I don’t think we will ever have all the answers to anything we face. I have learned that oftentimes the roughest roads create seasoned sailors and no time or trial is ever wasted. We are all learning to build resilience in ways we could not have imagined or fathomed even just two years ago. We are all in this together, and we all deserve grace and patience along the way. Be kind to yourself, love others, forgive yourself and those around you for not always knowing the perfect thing to do or say. Inhale love and hope, exhale fear and hate, and remember that if we don’t get it right today we can always try again tomorrow.

Macaile Hutt is the Director of Occupational Therapy for Star Speech and Occupational Therapy located in Star, Idaho. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education as a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional for Children and Adolescents (CCATP-CA), Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.

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