Patrick Hoffman
Program Leader

We have a teenager who used to have very intense tantrums. When faced with challenges he did not understand or requirements he felt were too high, he had no vocabulary to explain his thoughts or emotions, so it would just be a matter of time before his frustrations would boil over and become a tantrum. At that point, he would get up and throw things. His tone of voice changed and he copied things he had seen from films or cartoons about fighting. He would use words like happy, sad, or angry to describe his feelings, but more complex emotions such as frustrated, impatient, or insecure were beyond his perception.

One time, after an intense tantrum, he asked us in tears if there would ever come a time where he would be able to control his emotions. He was so sad about his own behavior and lack of self-control. But often when we talked with him afterwards, he found it very hard to systematize; he would be so upset from the experience that he sometimes wasn’t even able to remember the event in full. His lack of self-awareness and limited emotional language made it very hard to discuss the antecedents and how he could improve his behavior.

We knew we had to make him aware that he had choices in every situation and that he could foresee a problem before it comes and try to adapt.

For the past four months, we have been trying a new technique. He has three colored dots: green, yellow, and red, to express where he is in terms of mood. We incorporate these into our daily conversations. He can show us everything from how he feels about his friend to whether or not he liked a movie. Although he still cannot express specific emotions (both expressing and naming emotions was difficult for him), he now has a whole new awareness of how he’s feeling.

Nowadays, he comes to me and he’ll say, “I’m yellow now, on my way to red.” And that gives me the chance to reassure him, talk to him. He now has a way to manage his emotions and we’ve seen a drastic decrease in his tantrums. He comes to us before he explodes. On a regular basis he will come and tell us with excitement about how he controlled his emotions at home or elsewhere. For example, he’ll say, “Yesterday when my iPad didn’t work, I felt yellow, but then I did something else and later my iPad worked again. So I was green again.” Or, “My toy broke yesterday, but you know what? I just stayed in green and then I asked my uncle to help me fix it.”

We realized that not only did the color system help him visualize and map his emotions, it also helped him think in terms of how to problem solve, which is an amazing side-benefit!