Teaching children how to inhibit impulsive behaviors, manage their big angry feelings, and consider the effects of their behavior on others is a daunting task. Start by encouraging them to look inward. Draw their attention to their internal landscape. Teach them to watch their mental activity. With enough practice, they will make two important discoveries. The first is that their internal world is full of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts competing for consideration. The second is that they get to choose what they will focus their attention on.
Daniel Siegel uses the analogy of a wheel of awareness to explain this phenomenon (Siegel, 2011). The mind or internalized self is at the wheel’s hub. Sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts extend from the hub to the wheel rim. But none can command the attention of the hub without its permission. Attention always involves choice. And the best choices are those aligned with the goals the child sets for herself. The mind gets to choose where it directs its attention. The choice is based on what it wants to achieve.
This is a very liberating idea to children with early trauma histories. They are often stuck in reoccurring memories of the past. Use guided imagery to teach these children how to direct their attention to new sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. Ones that foster happiness and enthusiasm versus those that trigger depression and lethargy.
Begin by having children center themselves in the hub of their internal awareness. From there, ask them to review the spokes of their awareness wheel. Are there any sensations, images, feelings, or thoughts stored there that if attended to, might help them feel safer or more at peace? (Siegel & Payne Bryson 2011). Encourage them to write down any possibilities, and select one that they want to focus on. Together, decide on a strategy they can use to remember what they are focusing on, and draw them back to that image, feeling, or thought when their attention starts to wander – a picture, a note to themselves, an elastic band around their wrist.
Helping experience greater control of their attention, enables them to release their past and imagine a better future. This is an important step in overcoming a history of early childhood trauma.
For more information on teaching children to focus their attention, see:
Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight. Bantam Books
Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The whole- brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing brain. Mind Your Own Brain, Inc & Bryson Creative Productions, Inc.
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