Learning to Drive Emotions
Still, we stuck with it, and soon it became apparent that our tactic was working. Each time we pointed out that Dylan had a choice about which road to take, he'd stop and think. His attitude didn't change instantly, but just bringing up the story gave us a chance to sit and talk quietly. It helped to suggest ways Dylan could get back on the smooth road. For example, I told him to picture a stoplight. "What do cars do when they come to a red light?" I asked.
"They stop," he said. We talked about how pausing at a light is like taking a break and calming down.
Another time we discussed asking for directions when we're lost. "What do I do when I need help?"
"You call Dad," he answered. We talked a little more about how someone who loves you can help you when you're traveling down the wrong road.
I knew we'd made real progress about four weeks later, when we were driving to preschool. Very seriously, Dylan told us about how that morning he started to drive down the bumpy, grumpy road, then realized he didn't like that road.
"I decided to look for the smooth road," he said.
Even Edward was impressed. Clearly, the vision of a bumpy, grumpy road made sense to Dylan. He liked the idea of being in the driver's seat, in charge of himself.
One day not long after that, I got angry about some trivial matter. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I snapped at the boys. Dylan came up to me and asked me if I was on the bumpy, grumpy road.
I was shocked into speechlessness. He was pointing out that I too needed help keeping my cool at times! He told me to take a deep breath so that I could find the smooth road. I was amazed that this simple metaphor had become so important to him -- and to all of us. He believed in his ability to control his reactions and wanted to help me achieve that, too. I felt proud of him, proud of me, and truly calmer. It was a powerful moment.
Now my family uses the road story often. It works like a code. When one of us is struggling and brings up the bumpy, grumpy road, it lets the others know we're not at our best, and it serves as a subtle request for support and patience as we try to get back to a smoother path. Not only are we able to share our feelings, but we can regain some control of our emotions, too. It's so much better to acknowledge when we've hit a rough patch and so good to know that it's only a temporary detour.
Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of FamilyFun magazine.