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  • Macaile Hutt

How is your engine running?

As a pediatric therapist, I try to make the content I’m delivering to my patients fun and easy to understand. Particularly with coping tools and strategies, I have found that when a topic is motivating and interesting, children will be much more willing to adopt the practice in his or her everyday life, and remember to use it when the appropriate situations arise. I try to use visuals and examples that feel less scary than deliberately talking about how a child is feeling, and give them the opportunity to express it in a way that makes sense in their minds. For example, if a child is displaying an abnormal or atypical behavior, I will ask them what color it feels like, what animal it feels like, or what character from their favorite movie they are feeling the most like, and why. I will never forget sitting in a sensory tent with one of my patients as she cried uncontrollably and asking her what color and animal she felt like at the moment. Her answer, as profound as it comes, “I feel like a big blue elephant is inside of me sitting on my heart.” This answer allowed us to dive deeper into our feelings and why they cause us to react in certain ways. What made the elephant show up? What purpose does he serve? What actions can we take in order to make the elephant walk away?



We talked about the things that someone else could do to help the elephant stand up and move away from her heart, and also about how the elephant was never going to fully go away, and it would always live inside of her and press into her heart at the times in her life when her mind and body needed to feel sad. This elephant gives us clues about our heart, and we need to listen to those clues. She told me that crying was one way the elephant would shrink and not feel so heavy, and I gave her strategies and healthy phrases to use to let the people around her know that everything was okay, but she just needed some time to cry and feel sad before she wanted to talk about what was going on. Another child, out of the blue, began displaying really negative and aggressive behaviors without warning in our session. I asked him who he felt like and he rattled of the names of a few Minecraft characters that I was completely unfamiliar with. After asking a few more questions about the character, how he feels, and what he needs, we were able to take the pressure off of the child and his feelings and behaviors, and, instead, give him a way to talk about feelings and behaviors of a motivating character that made sense in his mind. We spoke about which character is the “ideal” character for getting work done and focusing, which character was distracted or tired, and which character was angry or frustrated. As our sessions went on, we practiced identifying these different feelings as the character specifically, and came up with coping tools and strategies to use to switch from character to character in order to match the expectations of the environment we were in. We even made a visual in which he drew Minecraft characters to correspond with the feelings happy, sad, angry, and focused, and we practiced transitioning from character to character depending on our moods at any given time or situation. Over time, this child learned how to express his feelings in a way that made sense to himself internally, but it also helped his feelings and emotions make sense to those around him externally, as well.

One of the most basic and simple starting points in order to implement this type of practice is to use The Alert Program, created by Mary Sue Williams, OTR/L and Sherry Shellenberger, OTR/L. The Alert Program discusses a child’s current state of arousal, impacting our body’s ability to focus, regulate, follow directions, and behave appropriately in any current situation. The visual used is that of a car and it’s engine. “Your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on low, sometimes it runs on high, and sometimes it runs just right”. The child is encouraged to come up with examples for an engine running fast, slow, and just right with the help of their parent, teacher, therapist, or caregiver. An engine running too fast might look like not being able to sit still in the doctor’s office waiting room, punching brother from across the car, and not being able to follow directions or instructions when mom asks for the 10th time to “please finish your breakfast and go brush your teeth” before school in the morning. An engine running too slow might look like cranky, tired, and frustrated. It might look like a head resting on the table and “zoning out” when being asked to follow simple instructions. An engine running just right looks like feeling focused, content, and proud. It looks like being able to sit still, but also having the energy to play and move without taking that movement too far.

When we are able to identify how our engine is running, we are also able to discuss different things we can do in order to slow our engines down or speed our engines up. An engine running too fast might need to perform heavy body work (pushing or pulling a laundry basket full of books,) run a few laps around the block, or receive input through squishes, squeezes, or the use of weight or compression in the form of a blanket or vest. An engine running too slow might need to eat, rest, or take a break from overwhelming input such as bright lights or loud noises. An engine running just right is ready to work, ready to move, and ready to take on the challenges that our daily environments present.

Once we have identified how our engine is running and how to speed it up or slow it down, we can put these tools into practice as we experience new situations, emotions, and feelings. Giving these visuals to our feelings and emotions make them feel less scary to talk about, and less scary to address. Allowing our children to come up with the animal, color, car, or character they identify with personalizes our emotions in a motivating and familiar way while taking the pressure off of having the spotlight placed on our (or our children’s) behaviors and emotions directly.

I challenge you to ask your family what color, character, or animal they feel like as different situations arise in your everyday life. And I challenge you to ask yourself the same. Honor these feelings, characters, or engine speeds. Give yourself a break when your engine is sluggish or running a little slow, and give yourself grace when your engine is speeding around all over the place without direction or navigation. Let yourself coast a little when your engine is running just right. The roads of life are ever-winding, ever-changing, and ever-moving. But luckily, your engine is, too.



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