Dr. Stanley Greenspan stressed allowing the child to be the director of play in Floortime. This includes when we want promote the child’s flexibility over their frustration when things don’t go their way. This week’s podcast is about why and how we follow the child in taking the lead. Returning guests, DIR Expert Training Leaders Psychologist Dr. Amanda Kriegel and Licensed Professional Counsellor Mike Fields from Floortime Atlanta join us this week to discuss this topic.
Why Floortime is Child-Led
Respecting the Child
Amanda thinks of frustration tolerance as learning how to flex your ‘frustration’ muscle. It’s about having little bits of frustration in a safe space with a safe person because unfortunately we cannot live a frustration-free life. That’s not realistic. She also points out how important it is to respect the signals we get from others. We let the child be the director by letting them say, “No” which can look like putting their body around what they’re doing so you can’t see it, moving over to the corner, or screaming. It’s about respecting those gestures and finding another way to join the child.
Mike says he became a Licensed Professional Counsellor after his son’s autism diagnosis and discovery of Floortime to share what he learned with other parents and wants to write a book one day called, “Raising Dad” about how much he’s learned from his son. Mike is very much about the Hero’s Journey and letting everyone be the author’s of their own story. This ties in with respect and letting the child be the director in Floortime.
Dr. Greenspan’s books, The Child with Special Needs and Engaging Autism talk about doing 6 to 8 twenty-minute Floortime sessions per day and Dr. Kriegel says that this is just not where most families live. Aim to at least try for one to two where all distractions are aside, phone and screens are off, siblings are elsewhere, and have only a couple toys or things they enjoy and go with it. Sit back and wait, watch, and wonder. Then join in. Don’t have a goal about getting more language or teaching. Just play.
At the beginning it may seem like a chore that you have to schedule in Floortime, but Mike says that once Floortime becomes your way of thinking about communication and relationships, then it’s easier to see this as a respite. Here’s a time when I don’t have to. Parents say, “I don’t have any ideas. It’s hard. I don’t know what to do with my child.” Especially when we get to the fourth capacity of shared problem solving, you just sit back and see what the child brings to you. It’s about being, not doing. It can be amazing to just be in the relationship.
Once we get into the habit of doing Floortime every night after dinner, or every Saturday morning and seeing what ideas my child has–even if it doesn’t seem like ideas or functional play, how do we proceed if it feels like my child doesn’t want to play with me, I asked. Amanda says that again, it’s about respecting those cues and trying to find another way in. It might be blocking the path of where their car is going. It might be doing what they’re doing, but next to them. She says she’ll often do something similar and be really enthusiastic about what she’s doing to see if that captures the child’s interest.
I’m not going to be right on you if you’re giving me the cue that that’s not what you want. But I’m going to hang with you, and if what you like doing is dropping marbles and watching them bounce, I might not stop you from dropping marbles but I might play marbles near you.
Finding that Connection
Dr. Kriegel gave an example of a Dad who dropped marbles near his son while the son was dropping marbles. Suddenly the child’s interest was peaked. He had been wandering around the room prior to this and moved away everytime Dad tried to join him. But when he saw Dad with the marbles, his eyes and energy said what we imagine is, “Wow! You like watching marbles drop, too?” Dad didn’t intrude or take over or tell him to stop. He wasn’t being overly loud and boisterous. He just hung out with it. This lead to many things dropping and bouncing and gave them great opportunities to connect.
Mike says that when your child doesn’t seem to want to play with you when you try to join in, it can feel like rejection if you see it as rejection. He gave us a fabulous example of showing up at a new client’s home for the first time and the child screaming and crying when they see him. The parent tries to reassure the child but Mike takes the door and slams it shut. After a minute or so he knocks again. They open the door, the child cries, and he slams it again. He repeats this and the child cries but it’s calmer and the child is now getting curious about what’s happening, so Mike says, “Oh, not yet.” and slams the door.
The next time the child is looking at him like he is weird and Mike asks, “Is it ok to come in now?” looking for the slightest cue that the child isn’t ready. If Mike sees widening eyes, or the child moving back, or any subtle cue, he grabs the door and slams it again. He says this has taken 10 minutes to get into the house but when he gets in the house, it’s because the child who has never met him before comes to the door, opens it and lets him in. Mike says it’s an extreme example, but Amanda and I just love it because it’s a metaphor for the entire topic of this podcast, Amanda says.
Mike says that the child was clearly communicating that they didn’t feel safe with him at first. It’s fundamental. You can’t really do anything if the child doesn’t feel safe with you, he explains. They are just in fear. So allowing a child to say “No” and respecting that can really bring you from one extreme to the other–from a screaming child to the child opening the door and letting you in because you’re the first person who hasn’t tried to make them do something, or do something to them!
I brought up the agony of bringing your child to appointment after appointment when you get a diagnosis and each time strangers are trying to get their business done within the appointment time but our children just cry and want to leave. Eunice Lee had mentioned that when they did Floortime appointments and the child did that, they might go to the door to follow the child’s lead and join in, trying to open the door together, or going in the hallway together, but our dentist or doctor doesn’t have time to Floortime our child at the start of every appointment.
This is precisely why, I shared, that we do Floortime at home where it’s safe, and when we’re not rushed nor distracted. The child gets practice at tolerating frustration in a playful way so that when you do have to go to appointments, they have some experience. Mike concurs. Our brains are pattern recognizers, he explains, so when we see something that doesn’t fit our past experiences, our brains are supposed to alert us. It’s a good thing. But we want that defense to be useful.
There’s a great children’s book, he offers, about anxiety called Hey Warrior where your amygdala is the guard that protects you. One time something slipped past the guard who says, “I will NEVER let that happen AGAIN!” Mike says that it’s about giving our children new experiences, or ‘collecting experiences’ as Dr. Barbara Dunbar would say, Mike shares, so that they realize that although they were scared, my parent made me feel safe and it went ok. More and more practice with new experiences increases their confidence in new situations.
Chase the ‘Why’
Mike says that it’s easier said than done, but if you feel like your child is rejecting you, chase the ‘why’ and wonder what it is that is making them feel unsafe. Don’t take it personally. Why are they reacting the way they are? The reason we learn about the child’s profile is so we can tailor our interactions to them so we are not coming in too fast or too loud. The more we understand our child, the more predictable we can be with them so the child will understand. The whole time we take cues from them. The child directs us with their subtle communication cues. The more we can pick up on, the better we can make our interactions with them predictable and safe.
I asked Dr. Kriegel if she thinks that video taping Floortime sessions if helpful. She says it is helpful to revisit what you missed in the moment to figure out what was going on. There is so much communication that can be missed and it takes practice to notice these cues in our child, as I discussed with Colette Ryan in a past podcast. If you turn away or blink, you might miss something, Mike says. The camera lets you see behind your back. Maybe you missed that subtle eye gaze or inhale with a step back.
With taking video, Mike adds that we so often feel the need to jump in and do something rather than waiting, watching and wondering. You feel like a therapist is coming in and judging your ability as a parent. This can be really hard. It’s about imposter syndrome–thinking that I don’t know what I’m doing as a parent and someone’s going to find out, Mike explains. But Floortime is a strengths-based approach to relationships and communication, so it’s not about what you missed or did wrong. It’s about your strengths to connect and typically no one has a closer relationship with the child than the parent.
Just like we are flexing our child’s muscle to tolerate little frustrations, we are flexing our own as parents. Amanda points out that we are going to misread cues and get it wrong often in trying to interpret our child’s communication and behaviour. If you have a respectful relationship, you can repair those ‘errors’, she offers. When we get it wrong, we can step back and say, “Oh, ok!” and give the error that space and sit in our own discomfort. You can sit in it together and figure it out, she explains.
Mike offers that we can normalize differences with our children. His son has an incredible memory and Mike will ask him to help with things that Mike is not as strong at. We only grow through stress, Mike explains. If we want our minds to get stronger, we have to think about more and bigger problems, he says, and if we want to strengthen our emotional fitness we have to go through the big emotions. He points out that our track record for getting through stressful situations so far is 100% because we’re still here. Floortime is strengths-based and focuses on strengths, hope and possibility, not pathology.
I shared how challenging it can be sometimes for parents to do that acknowledgement where we back off and say, “Oh! You don’t want that!” but that is the most important piece! We either are in such a rush to make things better and smooth things over and/or are so accustomed to directing, correcting and telling our children what to do or showing them what to do, so it’s so easy to dismiss that piece of acknowledgement. But you can’t. That’s when our kids realize that we saw, understood, listened, and respected them. Mike says we can also join the child in that frustration: “I know, right! Argh!” “I don’t like this either!” “This is hard.“
The Persistent Playful Partner
Once our children feel safe and we are used to acknowledging their frustrations, we can begin to playfully obstruct. I gave the example of asking my son for a pinecone to throw when he is busy throwing pinecone after pinecone in his glory. I can say, “Hey! I want a pinecone to throw, too!” “Pleeeeease, can I have one, too?” I can also slowly approach him teasing, “I’m going to grab a pinecone!” while picking up one that he was about to grab, throw it and say, “That was so fun!” If he protests, I acknowledge and say, “Oh! You didn’t like that!” and stay in that space for a moment.
Mike says that when we think about playful obstruction and being the playful persistent ‘pest’, we need to think about being a partner, not an opponent. Dr. Kathy Platzman says it needs to be a big ‘P’ in ‘Playful’ and a little ‘o’ for ‘obstruction’ otherwise, Mike says, it’s ‘painfully obnoxious’. The child has to be ‘with’ you. So we want them to feel safe, of course, but we also want to be with them so we will stay with them through discomfort and respect their need for safety but pulling back whenever they indicate they’re not interested in what we’re trying.
Challenging the Child
Mike continues that when Floortime students ask how to challenge the child up the developmental ladder, he stresses that you don’t push them up the ladder! You help and support them so they feel safe. He says it’s like opening a door and saying, “Look outside!” “I don’t want to.” “Cool! You don’t have to! But there’s something kind of cool outside.” “No!” “Ok!” This way, they feel safe. It gives them practice, because the world is not going to stop because something is uncomfortable, Mike asserts.
We don’t have to look for ways to create problems, Mike continues. He hears people say, “They have to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them!” Mike says to that: “Really? Do you really think that’s a risk?” He doesn’t believe that’s their biggest worry. We want them to know they’re not alone, wherever they find themselves, Mike emphasizes. I asked Amanda what she says if someone tells her the same thing. She responded that similar to Mike she’ll approach it like triage. Around sleep, she doesn’t care where anyone sleeps, as long as they’re sleeping. Don’t stay up fighting about where they sleep. Just make sure they sleep because that’s most important. It’s the primary regulator, Mike adds.
Dr. Kriegel quotes one of her mentors, Dr. Barbara Dunbar, who says we’re trying to build a foundation for 100 years. Who cares if they can’t do math yet? You can’t force things on a child who isn’t even with us yet. The challenge is not forcing them to learn something, but being with them to tolerate a little bit of discomfort while being there to support them through it, at their pace. There is no timeline. Things will evolve. It’s about growing without demand. When we listen and support the child, they slowly let us in. She’ll acknowledge parents’ wishes for them to speak or learn a skill, but stress to focus on getting more back-and-forth first.
This week's PRACTICE TIP:
This week when your child protests about something, stop and acknowledge what you think they just experienced.
For example: “Oh! That was too much!“
If you enjoyed this week’s podcast, please consider sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter, and feel free to share relevant comments, questions or experiences in the Comments section below–including the application of your PRACTICE TIP above. If you want to get the chance to interact with either of our guests or ask them questions, please attend our free, weekly Parent Support Virtual Meetings where Mike will be our guest on April 8th and Amanda on May 3rd! Thank you to both Dr. Kriegel and Mike Fields for this week’s podcast and for supporting the parent support meetings!
Until next week, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!