Violent children need habits that make them feel centred and calm. Their nervous systems kick into fight-or-flight high gear over the tiniest upset, and they need to be taught how to turn off the response. We all need relaxation habits, but a violent child’s survival depends on learning self-regulation exercises. Self-calming means a child avoids a fight or explosion and the whole dangerous and terrifying chain reaction of negative events that follow.
I have tried for years to incorporate a mind-body practice into my son’s life since solid evidence demonstrates great benefits for the brain and body; but I’ve only recently found some success in my quest. One big hurdle is that I don’t have a calming practice myself. I enjoy yoga, but classes are expensive and I can’t make myself do it alone at home. And while I love the idea of meditation, actually meditating with any regularity has proven beyond me.
I find my calming rituals in sitcoms at bedtime, in a glass of wine, and in long and very hot showers. These are all appropriate for my age and stage, but not helpful for setting the required examples for my son. So I tried a few things: I sat with my sons and did spiritual-guru Deepak Chopra’s online meditations when he presented free, online series. The kids dutifully did them since I did such positive, impossible-to-resist sale-pitching, and they were enjoyable and educational; but nobody continued when each series finished.
I bought books over the years filled with suggestions, techniques, worksheets and methods to help a child learn to meditate or self-calm, but nothing felt authentic to me or to my son. Then, recently, a new behaviour development dovetailed with my ongoing search, and my son and I made some inroads. Typical for his age and gender he’s been obsessed with the world of superheros. He devours TV shows, feature films, specially produced DC and Marvel reference books, and comics. He draws superheros, makes superhero comics, and even painted a Superman in acrylic on canvas.
However, I never thought the world of superheros could be useful for my own universal quest in the fight of good [behaviour choices] over evil [behaviour choices]…until the day my son spontaneously displayed the best, funniest and most appropriate “over”reaction of his young life.
I have spent several years already encouraging him hourly and daily to retrain his impulses from hyper-reactive and violent down to simply vocal or nonviolently physical (pounding fists on a bed, or running stairs, for examples). We’ve had excellent incremental success, and now expect only minor door slamming and chairs pushed hard against tables. These reactions are far better than the ones that preceded them, but still not what we’re aiming for (such as negotiating and simply leaving a heated situation, for examples).
But one day he reacted to a frustrating situation with, instead of any sort of real anger or violence, a full-on pantomime of cartoon violence that instantly made us both laugh and laugh! What could be better? In more Bugs Bunny than authentically Batman fashion, he set fire to my computer, picked the table up by its leg, swung it around and hurled it out a window, ripped the kitchen counter off and flung it through a wall, sprayed Bazooka bullets everywhere…and more.
What began as one of the thousands of angry meltdowns over yet another an inconsequential event suddenly and instead became a hyperbolic caricature of one of those same moments. I was stunned with joy! And, seeing that turnarounds could happen organically from within my son, I began to see that he had more calming techniques taking root in his mind and body than I had realized. I became conscious that, in fact, his karate practice in the kitchen calmed him; that banjo and clarinet practice calmed him; and that reading calmed him.
Certainly my long and purposeful hugs calmed him, but I had been searching for more methods than simply me and my voice and body could provide, since I will not always be there for him. Much is currently been written and discussed in Functional Medicine circles about the human microbiome and its importance in gut and whole-body health. The concept is that the modern world has removed the complex, dirty, beneficial bacteria that used to keep humans healthy, and stripped of it we’ve upset our own biological balance within the natural world. I feel as though my son’s random, messy, extra-curricular practices — practices that indeed helped his focus, concentration and brain function — took root in his whole self like beneficial microbacteria, helping to heal him.
Incidentally, although we successfully worked together to create a meditation that he even enjoys (!), and I encouraged him to make a superhero with Ayurvedic chakra powers, it was his own mind and body that created a nonviolent reaction of cartoon violence that now defuses difficult moments regularly and with great joy for us both, since the raucous Merry Melodies gang is a part of my own mind and soul, too.
I don’t suggest that pantomime violence is the ultimate self-regulation method, but it demonstrates a great developmental leap for a child whose violence has historically been very real. Plus, it shows humour, foresight, and a degree of planning: all the things we’ve been hoping to see one day instead of rote, angry outbursts. We’re clearly moving in the right direction.
Finally, it wasn’t until after his comic-violent reaction had surfaced that I found a book remaindered at our local spirituality-and-wellness bookstore, and bought it immediately: The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes by (none other than) Deepak Chopra, MD (HarperOne 2011), which my son is currently reading.