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At my workplace, I am usually one of the first people called to attend to a crisis. I am a first responder or, as I like to refer to myself, an EMT: Emotional Meltdown Technician. The memory of one particular episode is ingrained forever in my mind, as it was an experience that shaped the way I approach any conflict, both personal and professional.

By the time I arrived at the scene, the room looked like a war zone. Chairs were overturned. Papers and art materials were strewn about the room. The staff wore looks of frenzy and exasperation as they evacuated the other children out of the classroom. I was amazed that, amidst the chaos, those eleven boys stood in a perfect single file line as they waited to leave, something that was usually very difficult for this impulsive bunch to do. It was as if they somehow understood the gravity of the situation.

I scanned the room and saw the ticking time bomb over in the corner. A four-year-old time bomb, named Joey. I could see no sign of the sweet, friendly boy I knew. His breathing was heavy and labored, which told me that he had been at this for quite some time. His clenched fists dared me to come closer. And the expression on his face, that piercing glare, told me, “Let’s see you try to stop me!”

Tick.    Tick.    Tick.    Tick.

I made my approach slowly, not looking directly at him. He yelled a series of curse words at me. I ignored him and moved closer. “I wanna go to playground,” he said, seething. I responded, “first calm down, then playground.” I stood in front of him as he contemplated this, silent, ready.

Tick.    Tick.    Tick.    Tick.

The bomb detonated. Joey started banging his fists against my legs and screaming, “I HATE YOU!” I absorbed the blows, not changing the neutral expression on my face. Eventually, he ran around me and tried to climb up on the bookshelf. I calmly followed him, mindful of his safety. By the time I got to him, he had both feet on the first shelf and books were tumbling to the floor. I picked him up and placed him back on the floor. He tried again. I repeated my action. On the third attempt, as I reached to put him back on the floor, he turned to face me and WHACK! He put the entire weight of his body into his tiny little fist and punched me in the face.

My eyes widened with shock and I fought hard to maintain my composure. Joey was able to finally catch me off guard! I could feel my sense of calm beginning to crack, just as a rock creates a spidery web when it hits a windshield. My heart was pounding, my mind racing. My anger was seeping through. I wanted him to know how livid I was. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “HOW DARE YOU HIT ME! IT’S WRONG TO HIT! THAT’S IT, THERE’S NO WAY WE’RE GOING TO THE PLAYGROUND AND YOU’RE NOT GOING TO EARN YOUR TREASURE BOX AT THE END OF THE DAY!!”

Picturing myself yelling at this angry little child brought me a tiny bit of solace, but I knew better. I did not yell. I did not scream. I took a long, deep breath, looked Joey straight in the eye and said, “I see you’re mad. I’d like to help you calm down. Let me know when you are ready.” I plopped down on a chair and waited. Joey threw himself onto the floor and began to sob. He sobbed for what seemed like hours, though it was just ten minutes. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “I’m ready.” He tentatively followed me to the “quiet corner” (learn how to make a calming area in your home). We sat on a cushy beanbag and practiced taking deep breaths using bubbles. Slowly, I saw the sweetness return to Joey’s face and he said, “I feel happy again.” I smiled and praised him for calming down.

This was an important experience in understanding the difference between REACTING and RESPONDING. If I had reacted by yelling at Joey, I would have made the situation about myself – my anger, my pain, my needs. Sure, I could have told him all the reasons why he shouldn’t be hitting me and threaten to take away all the rewards he likes to earn, but what would be the point? Trying to reason with or scold a child in the middle of tantrum is like trying to scream a message to someone in the middle of a hurricane. Joey knew what he was doing was not right; he just had no better way of communicating his anger.

I chose to respond by 1) keeping my cool, 2) giving his behavior little attention, 3) reflecting his feelings and 4) offering an alternative way of dealing with the anger. By responding this way, I empowered Joey to make the choice to calm down on his own. If I had reacted in anger then the only thing that Joey would have learned was how to make an adult – who is supposed to be bigger and stronger – lose control. He wanted me to lose my control because he felt out of control! Instead, I gave him something more powerful, a corrective experience and a skill to use for next time.

After Joey calmed down, he cleaned up the mess that he made – the books, the chairs, the papers all went back to their rightful places. The other children returned and Joey was able to go back his regular routine. The only evidence of his anger was the burning sensation on my cheek, but, just like his anger (and mine), I knew that would fade with time.