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Emotions Unleashed or Inability to Process?

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Sometimes, in therapy, there is a display of unpleasant emotions. At times this is exactly what is needed. Other times, the situation may just be too unfamiliar to navigate Meltdown can occur because there is difficulty processing environmental information. The child may not comprehend the situation, in the same manner as you or I do. Connections in the sensory system may not be working correctly. 

Meltdowns can happen because of uncertainty. Possibly the therapy is new,  and the child is very young  The beginning of therapy is time to build a sense of safety and comfort. 

Sometimes meltdowns happen due to an affective disconnect. Difficulty with emotional signaling can be at the root. Factors contributing to those issues could include environmental ones such as severe deprivation or abuse. Biological factors can also limit a child’s capacity to interact fully with others. Biological factors may include such things as ASD or disability involving motor planning, auditory, visual-spatial processing, and/or sensory modulation. Issues like these can limit the ability to either respond to, comprehend, navigate or orchestrate responses through our emotional states. These intense emotional states are quickly linked to fight or flight reactions which ultimately are directly discharged through action.

Learning how to navigate or respond takes re-learning of missed developmental opportunities. This means nurturing the development that needs to be in place. Development is needed in order to handle automatic upset. However, there are times when the child will resort to older, more familiar, more known methods to “navigate” emotions. This may be one of those times when the therapist needs to allow a child their reaction and implementing supports that help the child navigate and experience safe, non-catastrophic results.

Let’s look at the “Jack in the Box” learning theory (https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2013/10/music-play-to-override-developmental-delays/). This theory describes how a typically developing child learns in a healthy environment. The baby’s mother turns the handle on the Jack in the Box. The clown jumps out and the baby looks at its mother with uncertainty. Baby sees its mother laugh with bright, inviting, affectionate eyes. The baby sees that this is fun, this is a game, see how Mommy looks?

The little one giggles back and the scenario is replayed as Mom entertains the baby and receives affectionate laughter. The baby, in turn, giggles, smiles and flirts with Mom to continue this emotional exchange. This turns into a rhythmic, back and forth cycle where the child learns what is catastrophic, affectionate, pleasant, and unpleasant. The more these types of interactions occur over time, the more the child processes what is pleasant or not. Unpleasantness is greeted with comforting nurturance building the ability of the child to delay, reflect, comprehend, and navigate unpleasant emotions.

But what happens to the child that has difficulty processing the environment?  Perhaps the child has biological deficits that do not allow this interaction to proceed. Perhaps, due to severe deprivation, depression, or other environmental issues, the mother does not respond. What does the child do or learn? What happens to this child as time continues and needed interactions do not occur?  The child lacks the ability to process. When overwhelming emotions occur, action, catastrophic response, immediately takes place 

When school begins and the child still can not appropriately navigate emotions often the resulting immediate action (melt-down) is inappropriate to the situation. The response also creates a chaotic and threatening environment for the child’s peers.  Behavioral techniques may temporarily modify the action taken by the child. However, the child still has not received what he needs in order to process further future unprocessed events. The typical result is that the catastrophic response gets treated with consequences. Unfortunately, this has not helped the child’s inability to fully comprehend the event.

Sometimes cranking on the Jack in the Box is avoided in order to avoid the catastrophic response. What then, has the child gained? Those working with this child are afraid, and so the child is scooted out of the room each day. Now, who is learning what?  Over enough repeated experiences, the avoidance of the meltdown can eventually become a comprehended tool to manipulate with. It is not appropriate for the situation for the child nor others near the child.

Instead, we can help the child grow. We can help the child with those developmental holes in order to comprehend the joy of the “jack in the Box toy” . This is done in a relationship, just like the typically developing child learned this through watching and comprehending Mom’s response in the early months.   In music therapy we can set up the musical enviornment need to gently crank the Jack in the box. Then allow the child to go through the process but with supports, and safe boundaries. This way, the child learns that he is okay. And the Jack in the Box can be fun, not scary. Catastrophic responses transform in developing longer, reflective thinking, and self-regulation.  

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC

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