Five years ago, my tearful, red-faced, seven-year-old daughter stood before me, seconds after concluding an epic screaming tantrum, and asked me a simple question: “Can I have a restart?” My blood boiled as the lessons stemming from her fit rolled around in my head. There was so much to say, so many important messages to impart. My palpable frustration caused her to scrunch her small face and ask again, “Mommy, can I please have a restart?” I refocused through my haze of anger to muster my question, “A what?”
On that day, my intensely creative, imaginative, passionate child with VAST, Variable Attention Stimulus Trait — Dr. Ned Hallowell and Dr. John J. Ratey’s brilliant and more accurate new name for ADHD — taught me about the life lesson of the restart. We now use the term often in our home when impulsivity flares and tempers run hot. Absolutely, the restart applies to other personal and professional scenarios, too. We all have times in our lives when we just need a restart.
A restart is an owning of the moments preceding an inappropriate emotional outburst like a tantrum or fit, often accompanied by screaming, door slams, cursing, or using other hurtful words. In my example, my weathering through the lightning and then agreeing to my daughter’s restart was an act of recognition that ADHD/VAST causes impulsivity followed by feelings of discomfort or even shame. Most importantly, a restart, although immensely difficult for everyone involved, is a path to move forward with calm.
As a parent, I had to first accept that my children can and should “press” the reset button. When one does, I try to stop completely, not respond to anything that came before, recognize the subtle ownership engrained in the ask for a restart, and move rapidly and completely through my own emotional experience. While we may know the familiar saying “strike when the iron is cold,” the containment and regulation of emotions needed in these moments is much more easily discussed than lived. For those who meditate, this is the moment to let your skills shine, and for those who do not, it is a time to practice deep breathing. Wait until later and the outcome will be better; you do not need to say anything during these critical moments.
Although our logic and reason may tell us that we will not succeed in imparting any messages or instilling lessons during these emotional storms, still, it is hard not to react. What we really need is the time to recover, heal, refuel and then, and only then, open a conversation about what happened. The restart reinforces a lesson in pausing, reflecting, sharing a new path forward, and making amends through action, which accomplishes more than an “I’m sorry.” And yes, of course thrown items should be picked up and eventually apologies offered, too.
How then do we as caregivers follow up on our child’s restart? For kids who struggle with emotion regulation, a handwritten note can be particularly impactful. Then, post restart, it should feel easier to handle in a calm and measured way all the other important action items to further transform the episode into a learning experience for your child: validate their emotional experience, reflect on what happened, and suggest new ways of handling it, without the emotional intensity. My notes often resemble the following:
I am sorry you felt so frustrated when I turned off the TV in the middle of the show. I know you hate stopping things in the middle. I can do a better job giving you more warnings next time. I would appreciate it if you would try not to yell when you are upset. You may never slam your door. If that happens again, you won’t be able to watch TV the following night.
Most importantly, I love you, and I am proud of how you turned things around.
Yes, I have found many of these notes crumpled on the floor. Yet, I believe they have had an impact. I know I can be my best parent self in those moments. My daughter has afforded me that opportunity by teaching me the art of the restart.