This post includes ‘Alternative Scenarios Game’, a tool to increase the ability of a child to look at situations and themselves from other perspectives, thereby growing their emotional resilience in social situations. It is part of the Multifaceted Emotion Regulation Theory (MERT) developed by Simone de Hoogh.
We have all experienced social situations where we have felt rejected or unfairly treated. As adults, we can use our experience to reflect on the other person’s behaviour and understand their perspective. By activating the thinking part of our brain, we can avoid (or quickly move out of) a stress response so that we are able to take things less personally, remain calm and quickly repair the situation. For those of us with Emotional OE this ability to suss out what others are feeling comes very naturally, and we can use it to guide our children in growing understanding and compassion for others.
Our children lack our years of experience, and might have difficulty stepping into the shoes of other children or people, imagining how the other person experiences the situation and looking at things from their perspective. Not having this innate ability can make social interactions more challenging for them because they will be more easily triggered into the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload by the things others do or say . When this happens they will struggle to think new thoughts and sometimes even get stuck in their overwhelm (in the amygdala) because they haven’t learnt to calm themselves when overwhelmed by moving smoothly and easily from one area of the brain to another. They may feel frustrated and angry, and might lash out at the external and/or the internal world, blaming and shaming others or themselves.
We can support our children to strengthen this skill by using the ‘Alternative Scenarios Game’ a tool that helps to take them by the hand and practice stepping in someone else’s shoes.
‘You’re a cheater’
In class each day Henry’s teacher facilitates a few rounds of Heads down and thumbs up. A few months ago Henry was found cheating by one of his classmates and his teacher who both saw him secretly look. Since then he hasn’t been ‘thumb touched’ again by his peers in class to get the chance to become the next ‘thumb toucher’ of the next lot of pickers. After his mum complained to the school his thumb was touched again. Finally he was able to pick who to ‘thumb touch’. On his turn he said he accidentally brushed one thumb (probably changed his mind according to his mum) and touched someone else’s. The child that he accidentally brushed the thumb of stood up and the one he touched pretended he wasn’t touched. Consequently Henry got really upset in class, and lashed out to his peers by blaming them for the situation. This all created a lot of drama in the class and Henry was accused of being unfair and a cheater once more. Once a cheater always a cheater. When he came home he told everything to his mum and said:
“My friends called me a cheater again in class and I never ever want to go back to school!” Henry, 8 years old.
Mum’s contingency plan
When Henry shared his upset about what had happened with his mum, she was aware that her first reaction was within the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload. She recognised her own stress response when triggered, which was blaming and shaming the other kids and her own child, and she used her contingency plan for what to do when overwhelmed:
- She got up (standing up helps us to become calmer as it activates the motor part of our brain, and it feels empowering to let our feet speak, allowing us to execute our contingency plan);
- She said, “Ooh Sweety, how awful, you need a cuddle!”, hugging him and saying, “I really need to go to the bathroom and then I’ll make a cup of tea and you’re going to tell me all about it”;
- She followed up in the toilet with applying the Awareness Mantra and the 4-7-8 breathing exercise until she was calm;
- Next she assessed whether she was now calm enough to not get triggered so she could strategically support her son. She knew that if she was not calm enough yet to put her own emotional reaction on the backburner, then she could execute the final step of her contingency plan, saying something like: “Ooh shoot! I’ve totally forgotten I have to …. [fill in whatever you have thought of beforehand that will give you the time and space needed to calm down], so we’ll have to talk after.”
Tea and talk
When mum was calm, she made tea, sat next to her son, held him close in her arms (stimulating the bonding hormone oxytocin that calms people) or just held hands (whatever is appreciated by the child) and listened carefully to his entire story with a light smile on her face (taking into account her son is a pre-teen and might get triggered in thinking she is angry or worried if she is looking neutral, as they lack proper face reading skills). She only asked non judgemental questions like “What happened after?”, “Who said what?” and “Can you draw a map of where everyone was in the class?” in order to get a better picture of what had happened and how he experienced it (acknowledging everyone always lives in their own reality). This also allows the child to get everything off their chest, express how they feel because they feel supported, and to calm down as mum is activating the fine processing part of their brain.
Listening to Henry she noticed several things that she thought would be helpful for him to be aware of and potentially give him tools and strategies to support himself in the situation.
- When Henry was picked for the first time in months his stress response was probably triggered by the unexpectedness and also his experience of the previous time when he was picked and accused of being a cheater
Mum: I can imagine you were quite surprised to be picked again, how was it for you?
Henry: I couldn’t believe it, I was so excited and then I first wanted to pick Johnny, so I brushed his thumb, but then I thought he never picked me and then I touched Elliot’s because he picked me the last time.
Mum: So being surprised meant you didn’t know what you wanted to do. Let’s make a plan together for next time so you feel confident about what you want to happen, who you are going to pick and how to move so you don’t accidentally brush someone and give the impression of cheating.
Henry: I’m not a cheater!
Mum: Of course you aren’t – hugging him tightly – it just looked like it because we hadn’t prepared well. [Or if not possible to hug, squeeze your child’s hand.]
- Henry was unaware of the risk involved of being stereotyped already by his peers as a ‘cheater’
Henry: I never want to see them again, they call me a cheater again. I hate school and am never going to go back!
Mum: Remember last Summer you couldn’t find some yellow lego pieces and Theo’s mum phoned and told us Theo had taken them home with him accidentally and she brought them back? Imagine Theo came to play here and you see him put some of your lego in his pocket, what would you experience and do?
Henry: He is stealing my lego again! I would be very, very angry… (He’s making angry noises.)
Mum: What you are experiencing now when in your mind you see Theo stealing again, is what the children in the class experienced when they thought you were cheating again. It’s normal that they think that and their stress response might also be triggered by it.
Henry: But I’m not a cheater!
Mum: Of course not – hugging him tightly [or squeezing your child’s hand] – we had not prepared for you being picked and therefore accidentally Johnny’s thumb got brushed and the class experienced that as cheating.
- Henry looked at the situation from a victim perspective, blaming others for everything that had happened. He was giving away all his power because you can’t change others, you can only change yourself, and this disempowering of himself strengthened the cycle of emotional and sensory overload
Mum: You became very upset when the children called you a cheater in class didn’t you? What happened?
Henry: They said all kinds of nasty things to me, they called me a liar and a cheater, and it made me so angry, I wanted to crush the whole world.
Mum: What happened then, what did you do?
Henry: -looking down- I shouted back they were the cheaters and liars and called them names, and kicked a chair around. And we all ended up shouting at each other.
Mum: What happened then?
Henry: Master Tom stood up and raised his arms and shouted that we all had to calm down and shut up.
Mum: And did you manage?
Henry: Yes, we all were quiet, Master Tom never shouts…
Mum: Well done YOU for becoming quiet, how did you manage to do that? (Read for further information Giving Heartfelt compliments)
Henry: I just shut up – shrugging his shoulders –
Mum: So you just did it?
Henry: Yes – nearly irritated –
Mum: So you just did it. Well done YOU, that’s a very great strategy! – hugging him tightly – [if not possible to hug, squeeze your child’s hand].
Mum: So what can we do better next time?
Henry: We make a plan for next time when I get picked. And how do I make them see I’m not a cheater?
Mum: The most important thing is that you and I know you are not a cheater. You only came across as a cheater because you had not prepared to be picked and therefore were flustered and accidentally brushed Johnny’s thumb. If they mention it again you can say that. It’s normal to also say sorry if you accidentally make a mistake. You could, for example, say:
“I’m sorry, I was so excited that I was flustered and accidentally brushed Johnny’s thumb, it won’t happen again because I’m better prepared now.”
Notes to self
- Mum made a note to self that if she contacted school again about something she would at the same time go through the situation with Henry, so he would be prepared if a change happened, as being unprepared for what to do if he would be picked again had been unhelpful.
- Knowing what to do in certain situations is always helpful and often calming in stressful situations, so she would support Henry in developing a thought through plan for action if something challenging like this happened again.
- Mum also planned to talk about what Henry could do to calm himself in class if/when something upsetting happened again.
Alternative Scenarios Game
This way of talking is called the ‘Alternative Scenarios Game’: it’s a tool that helps our children (and us) to understand that whilst whatever we might be thinking, feeling or doing when we are in the cycle of emotional and sensory overload might feel very real (because of the strong stress response emotions attached), however it doesn’t mean they are helpful or generally reflective of our reality.
It will also help our children (and us) to look differently at repetitive thoughts as a reaction to certain situations, or around encounters with specific people or (authority) figures. The calming framework of the Alternative Scenarios Game will help prevent stress response based thoughts, feelings and actions from growing out of proportion and getting in the way of being able to independently create a fulfilling life for our children when they’re older.
Whatever our children (and we) are thinking is just one of many thoughts that come and pass, and is a little speck on the tapestry of their (our) day, and we want to keep it that way!
The Alternative Scenarios Game’s aim is to help by training the brain to move more smoothly between different areas, and get in charge of overwhelm.
How it helps when overwhelmed
If we or our children feel overwhelmed and are afraid that we have lost our connection with our intellectual and practical ability to calm ourselves down, and we are in danger of misinterpreting the situation it’s time to apply the Alternative Scenarios Game!
The Alternative Scenarios Game helps us to calm down as it will trigger synapsis to fire off in areas of the brain other than the emotional Amygdala triggered centre. It will help children get access to and ingrain the routes to those other areas in the brain, if needed when overwhelmed.
All children and adults alike who feel overwhelmed will be helped with this practical tool to learn to calm down. It’s especially useful for children with extreme overexcitability (the innate ability to react more strongly to sensory input) and/or with extreme boundaries in the mind (which inhibits easy movement between different areas of the brain), as it will offer to them the experience of moving from one area of their brain (the amygdala) to another (the fine processing centre).
You’re Not Invited!
The daughter (16 years) told mum, “I asked Grace, ‘What are you doing for your birthday?’ and she reacted so rudely, she answered ‘Well there’s no point telling you as you aren’t invited!’. I feel awful about it.”
The mum and daughter have an open communication channel and after a few months, when the daughter felt comfortable sharing, she told her mum what had happened and that she was still upset and hurt, and thought it was mean and very rude.
First off the mum told her daughter that whatever someone says, it tells nothing about the daughter but everything about how the person speaking is feeling.
Secondly the mum (with emotional OE) realised that her daughter (with thicker boundaries) had put Grace on the spot by asking her a question, “What are you doing on your birthday?” that indirectly implied she expected to be invited. The daughter wasn’t aware of this, nor that it had triggered Grace’s stress response (the fight stress response) in the cycle of emotional and sensory overload, making her unkind in her response – the girl was lashing out emotionally in her stress response.
Thirdly the mum took her daughter metaphorically by the hand (helping her to move away from her emotional overwhelm (in the amygdala) to the more fine processing areas of the brain so she could think more clearly with the following conversation:
Mum: Imagine you can only bring three girls with you on your birthday, otherwise it gets too expensive and Susan [a girl the daughter really likes] asks you, “What are you doing on your birthday?” What do you think/how do you react/how does it make you feel?*
Daughter: I would directly tell Susan (what I was planning) and invite her to my birthday because that was the plan all along.
Mum: Now Mary [a girl the daughter doesn’t have a lot of contact with] asks you, “What are you doing on your birthday?” What do you think/how do you react/how does it make you feel?*
Daughter: That makes me feel uncomfortable… I don’t really know… I don’t want to be unkind and offend her, but I don’t want to invite her either.
Mum: Might this be a scenario that would explain Grace feeling uncomfortable when you asked her what she was doing on her birthday?
Daughter: [kind of relieved and much calmer] Yes, that puts another light on the situation. But why couldn’t she be more kind?
Mum: She probably felt very much on the spot and reacted out in a stress response. Remember when your brother broke your favourite mug, you weren’t able to be kind to him either…
Daughter: Yes, you’re right but he’s my little brother!
Mum: Can you think of an alternative scenario that would explain Grace’s reaction that has nothing to do with you?
And the daughter comes with another scenario, the family being so poor that they can’t organise a party for her, mum asks for one more, and one more etc, until they both can’t think of anything anymore. This process helps our thick boundaries children to develop the skills to change perspective from within to outside themselves.
*You can quickly connect with your child by choosing the phrasing that best suits them, depending on whether they express themselves as thinking (I think), doing (I did) or feeling (I felt).
Finding more Explanations
We can model this tool when we are triggered, asking ourselves and our children specific questions to help come up with alternative scenarios. For example, we feel badly treated by a once precious friend or have gone through a challenging experience, and we have developed a rationalisation that goes round and round in our head every time we think of her or the situation (therefore ingraining it as a neurological pathway).
What we’re going to do to help ourselves to think critically and innovatively is to triggering the fine processing centre in our brain by asking ourselves to come up with at least three different scenarios that do not involve us:
“What could be another explanation for her behaviour, that doesn’t involve me?”
This will help us to start really thinking – instead of having repetitive thoughts as an expression of our emotional overwhelm. By kick starting activity in our fine processing centre, we calm our emotional upset that happens in the amygdala part of our brain, since synapses cannot fire off everywhere at the same time.
Help our child to see a possible bigger picture
We can also apply this whenever our child comes home with a story that includes a pointing finger, a righteous feeling or a person behaving in an unacceptable way towards our child and ask: “Can we come up with another scenario that would explain it differently?”. Really weird, colourful, strange stories that explain the same outcome are very successful with children! This helps our child to see the bigger picture, and will also help children with thick boundaries in the mind to step in other people’s footsteps.
“Grace was told off by her mum this morning and feels really lousy, so she was mean to the first person she came across and unfortunately that was me.”
“Grace might have felt upset because she had a nightmare last night in which I attacked her brother, but she was too embarrassed to tell me..”
Stimulate to find more alternative scenarios
If you yourself or your child come up with a lovely scenario for an issue, compliment yourself or them for their innovative ability ((read more about Giving Heartfelt compliments)) and always ask them, “what more can you think of?” which will help them to continue to develop their flexible critical thinking skills.
©2023 Simone de Hoogh, senior coach and educational and parenting consultant, and founder of PowerWood. All posts by Simone de Hoogh
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