Coping Skills Toolbox

Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of 15 toolbox tips.

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Photo credit: April Avey

I’m researching private schools today. I thought I’d deal with the prickles this task incites by blogging about it instead of diving into my secret stash of chocolate. Ok, I’ve already had one square, but I could very easily sit down and eat the whole bar right now. This post however is not about emotional eating; it is about make hard choices and staying present, aware, and involved with children who require extra handling.

I had a very disappointing conference with my son’s substitute last week. She has bravely stepped in for the two plus months it will take for my son’s teacher to recover from an injury she sustained at home about six weeks ago. My heart went out to this sweet smart sub as we reviewed my son’s 504 plan and discussed his struggle with the transition and his subsequent regression. She has her hands full, not only with my son, but with a class widely spanning the *MAP®. My son has ADHD and transitions are rough in general, but this one caught me off guard because he was doing so well before his teacher’s accident. A succession of wonderful teachers has helped us navigate his social, emotional, and educational challenges and the impact of their dedication has grown more evident to me over the past month. Teachers work so hard to accommodate all their students. My brother is a teacher and I admire the way he’s made it his life’s calling. My hat is off not only to full time teachers, but to substitutes as well, especially the ones who sign up for long stints. It’s a tough gig.

Once my son’s stable routine disappeared along with his key point person at school, his coping skills spiraled. My son had a traumatic brain injury when he was three; he fell out our second story window and fractured his skull. After six days in intensive care and a year of follow up visits, he emerged remarkably intact both physically and cognitively, but we were told he might be angry and impulsive and he has since been diagnosed with ADHD and a possible mood disorder. The diagnoses might have happened anyway, he has a genetic predisposition to serious mental illnesses. My ex-husband’s brother is schizophrenic and his mother and aunt were severely bi-polar. God willing, it will never manifest, but we are all too aware of the possibilities.

I reached out to my son’s substitute after the third time the school nurse called me to pick him up in a month with seemingly legitimate injuries that inevitably resolved shortly after bringing him home. He was seeking attention. A lot of ADHD kids are accident prone. They’re impulsive by nature, but much more so when they’re struggling. I called the school counselor and found out he was popping into the nurse’s office a lot more than I realized. Most of the time they give him a pat on the back and send him on his way, but he’s good at milking minor injuries and he has a history of fluke health problems that probably prompts the school nurse to take him more seriously than she would otherwise.

The substitute asked me if there was anything beyond his 504 plan that would help him stay on task in class. The unfortunate answer is more one on one time. He doesn’t work autonomously. He needs more specific instructions and prompts than a teacher with a class of 26 kids and no assistant is able to give. In the past teachers have sent his incomplete classwork home and I have sat with him to finish it. On top of assigned homework, this can eat up a significant chunk of our afternoon and he ends up feeling very defeated. This is not helpful for a kid with a mood disorder.

So, I’m looking at options and realizing it may be time for private school. In the meantime I’m returning to his toolbox, brushing up on tactics, and trying once again to get him back on track. He’s a great kid, articulate and charming, philosophical and artistic, but he’s intense and managing his moods wipes me out sometimes. Kids who process just about everything differently require more direction than their peers. It takes a team to keep them on track. When we are in sync with his teachers, coaches, and doctors his daily routine is much smoother. Routines get disrupted though and things will go wrong from time to time. We’re trying to teach him how to check in with himself and turn things around on his own but when he spirals I assemble the team and pull him back. This time I may need to switch the team up a bit. We moved here in part because of the school rankings and we have an older daughter who is thriving in the system, but my son is not.

I am by no means a parenting expert, but I do know that I have to train myself as much as I have to train my son. When he gets derailed, so do I. How I react dictates how quickly we’re able to resolve whatever issue is at hand. It would be wonderful if I could employ a tactic, master the behavioral problem, and move on, but it’s not that easy. Just when you think you’ve moved beyond the destructive behavior, a teacher gets injured, takes a leave of absence, and a well-meaning substitute steps in and unwittingly dismantles the progress he’s worked hard to achieve. Tantrums ensue and the good habits I’ve nurtured for myself during our peaceful hiatus start to slip. I’m guilty of spiraling when my routine is disrupted as well. Cue chocolate. Time to open that toolbox we’ve both worked hard to assemble over the past few years. I’m feeling generous today, so in case you’re interested, here is a list of resources that have helped us both. Feel free to pass it on!

Behavioral Tactics

1. Get Outside: I take my son on dates where we can take a break from our routine. When it’s just the two of us he relaxes and opens up. We’ve made beautiful progress this way.

2. Count Backwards: Counting backwards can change the chemicals in your brain.

3. Set Crystal Clear Expectations: Our day goes much smoother when I review specific instructions and involve my son in setting expectations before tasks and activities. He doesn’t do as well if he’s rushed without a clear notion of what’s expected of him.

4. Use Timers: This is part of setting expectations. My son doesn’t always have a great sense of time and having a countdown frees him from the distraction of fixating on how long he has to complete a task.

5. FLOW: We use this word a lot to keep him on task. He often gets stuck and can’t complete tasks because he’s fixating on one part of a problem or feels defeated and gives up. We’re training him to push through, keep moving, keep working. The word FLOW reminds him to do this. We tape it to his desk at school.

6. Pencil Smiley: Gently bite down on a horizontally placed pencil. It will force the corners of your mouth up, creating a smile.  Smiling can change the chemicals in your brain, but it’s not always easy to smile when you don’t feel like it.  Use the pencil as an aid. Disclaimer – my son once broke a pencil by biting down too hard, but it has worked occasionally.

7. Change the Channel in Your Mind: My son often says his mind mocks him. He gets stuck on images or negative thoughts. When this happens we tell him to change the channel in his mind. We’ve gone as far as naming those channels: funny animals channel, happy pokemon channel, happy place channel, etc.

8. Prayer: This is an essential one for us. Faith is integral to our family life and prayer is not just for the dinner table or before bed. I try to teach my kids to keep the lines of communication open with God. I believe there is power in prayer.

Products (note: products are linked under the Amazon widget  in the sidebar)

9. Oil Diffuser: Diffusing essential oils can positively affect your mind and emotions. We use the Now Solutions Diffuser and oils from Edens Garden.

10. Energy Lamp: Full spectrum lighting can improve energy and boost your mood. We use the Verilux HappyLight.

11. Melatonin: Sometimes my son has a hard time coming down off of his medication and I find that ½ of a melatonin pill helps him sleep.

Books (linked under Amazon widget in the sidebar)

12. Raising Boys with ADHD: Secrets for Parenting Healthy, Happy Sons by James W. Forgan, Ph.D., & Mary Anne Richey

13. ADHD & Me by Blake E. S. Taylor

14. Angry Octopus: A Relaxation Story by Lori Lite Illustrated by Max Stasuyk

  1. Illustrated Workbook for Self-Therapy for Your Inner Critic Transforming Self-Criticism into Self-Confidence by Bonnie Weiss, LCSW Illustrations by Karen Donelly

*Measurement of Academic Progress

One thought on “Coping Skills Toolbox

  1. This was a really great blog! Thanks! I actually tried the counting backwards idea just tonight and it helped! I needed to do it from 100~ha!

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