I was talking to a parent recently about how her son “overreacts to everything.” I just laughed.

Yes, I know that our kids overreact—or in some cases underreact (but that usually isn’t a daily annoyance, but definitely a cause for concern)—and that it is sensory, but it sure is enough to drive a person crazy.

I have had many conversations with Gabriel about how if he acts like everything is a SHARK ATTACK I have no way of knowing when it is a splinter versus a broken leg.

The basic problem is that I don't know how to react.

How will I know how to help?
How will I know when we really do need to go to the ER?

We ran into this issue years ago, and although we still do struggle with it, we have come to some conclusion as to how to handle it.

Here is my method which I call the
Shark Attack Method for Overreaction:

1. Define “overreaction” with happy examples;
2. Tell the Boy Who Cried Wolf Story (real or your version);
3. Introduce Scaling (if your kid is older you could use 1-10 but we stick with 1-5 for ease);
4. Decide what the WORST THING EVER would be with your child/family;
5. Practice Scaling everything (all emotions or feelings);
6. Use Scaling during an overreaction;
7. Introduce Blood vs. Pain and
8. Keep practicing!

Curious? GREAT! Now here is how I created the Shark Attack Method for Overreaction:

It all originally started with our psychologist about 5 years ago when we were working on Collaborative Problem Solving.

This is long before we knew about Gabriel’s SPD, or for that matter, long before we knew about ANY issue.

We had not “officially” adopted Gabriel either at this point, and although he had been living with us uninterrupted for over two years at this point, we were still blaming every issue he had on adoption or attachment or something.

So, that brings us to his obsession with food.

Gabriel loved to eat—and he would eat anything.

This is a sign to me now that he needed oral input for self soothing, but I had no idea.

What I did know is that he would eat and eat and eat and often until he threw up from being over full.

That worried me.

He would say “I am hungry” all the time.

Our psychologist introduced the theory of scaling his feelings so that we knew what was going on and whether or not he needed food or something else. What was he feeling?
We introduced the idea of “How hungry are you?” With the scale being from 1 (not hungry) to 5 (Starving).

The scale worked pretty well—but remember he was 3 ½ at this point.

The idea of scaling as a whole has stuck with us.

And even though Gabriel can and will still eat until he throws up, I have gotten pretty good about monitoring and he has learned that as soon as the meal is over, he needs gum. LOL

Now that we knew how to scale, Gabriel was comfortable with it, we had to figure out how to apply it to other parts of his behavior. That brings us to the overreaction application of the scaling.

We have used Scaling regularly for the last couple years to determine how “hurt” he is.

I am sure you can relate, but at our house things can be generally calm and then all of a sudden Gabriel is screaming or maybe I should say WAILING like a ridiculous siren from upstairs.

I don’t even hurry to see what is wrong any more.

Nick could’ve simply *looked* at one of the Lions and Gabriel could potentially react the same way as if someone was tearing him limb from limb.

What about a real injury?

Any injury that produces blood—real or imagined—is cause for a complete loss of mental functioining.

And yes, there is at least once or twice where I thought, “Damn that must have hurt.” But the other 8,594,234 times shouldn't have even registered.

Hence my problem and our need to scale our reactions.

We started by defining the word “overreaction” and talking about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story with a modified ending (didn’t need the boy to really be eaten in the end, but perhaps he did have an emergency and the wolf ate the sheep—but not the boy).

We practiced having *positive* overreactions to reinforce the definition:

“Here Nick, I got you this block for your birthday.” I said.

“WOOOOOOO! HOOOOOOOOOOO!” Nick would yell, under direction from me, and then do a huge HAPPY dance.

"Was that an appropriate reaction or was that an overreaction?"

"An overreaction!" They would answer in chorus.

Then we took turns pretending to give eachother ridiculous things until eventually I had to end the exercise at giving each other dog poop. I have boys.

Our discussions would then move to the fact that, although ANY gift is nice, if it is just a block—not a life sized fire truck of your very own--the "reaction" needs to match.

They got it quickly. But enjoyed the practice anyway. : )

After the word “overreaction” and the idea of how it "doesn't match" what was going on for real, were solidified in their minds, we introduced the “Shark Attack”.

While brainstorming with Gabriel about what thing in the world could possibly be the WORST THING EVER that would require the BIGGEST reaction, we settled on a Shark Attack. By a Great White Shark. Of course. Please note here that we are using something that is NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE for it to actually happen. Using a "smashed finger" or "broken nose" wouldn't be nearly as affective and could be really scary for them (but Mom, I really thought my nose was borken.). A Lion attack, or having a plane crash on you, or having Darth Vadar use the force on you might all be HORRIBLE, and unlikely. That is the key.

Now enter the application of the idea.

(Gabriel screaming)

“Gabriel, are you hurt?”


“What’s wrong?”

“Nick ran into me when we were walking down the hallway and I bumped into the wall!!!”

“Wow, that must have hurt. How much did it hurt? From 1-5 what number was it?”

He always looks a little surprised at this.

“A 5!!”

“Really? I don’t see the shark—but we’d better run just in case.” *grin*

He thinks that is funny, and with my kiddos humor always works.

(more screaming)

“Since there is no shark, what number do you really think it is?”

“A 2 OR a 3.”

“Ok, then you shouldn’t have a 5 reaction--that is an overreaction to a 2 or 3 hurt. I mean, if you are ever really attacked by a shark, how will I know?”

Then we discuss what would be a normal “2” reaction.

“I think a two would be more like, ‘OWW! Man this hurts a lot, I need a hug and a kiss.’ Which is pretty different from your reaction.”

And that understanding is how we work in to his ability to be “self aware” of his reactions and scale them appropriately.

Although this isn’t that common at home, he does do a pretty good job of scaling his emotions in public and more specifically at school.

Which is the first step.

Now, after a few years of doing this, I am known to have him start screaming and just say “This isn’t a shark attack Gabriel, you need to calm down so I know what is going on.”

Not always that simple, but it is a good mental image for him to remember. I mean, really, getting attacked by a shark is a pretty strong image!

The other day he was JUST LOSING HIS MIND after being hit in the mouth by Nick (genuinely on accident).

Really, it was probably a 3, complete with a fat lip, but it was the blood that put him over the edge.

The blood was not pouring out, there really were only maybe 2 drops total, but he was acting like it was gushing with his hands placed over and under his mouth to save the precious blood that he thought was flowing freely from his face.

But with a napkin, I showed him there was no such geyser of blood.

He still didn’t believe me.

So we started looking for the shark.

Nope, no shark. (In case you are wondering, we do not live under water, so we have yet to find one.) : )

As you might imagine, it took a lot to settle him down. But in the end, the missing shark proved to be helpful in explaining to him how his reaction was an OVERreaction.

This brings me to the next thing that we have used to reduce his overreactions:

Blood does not equate to pain.

The MORE blood does not mean the MORE pain.

Here are our examples:

A bloody nose—lots of blood, very little pain. But it can be uncomfortable and taste bad—but those aren’t the same as pain.

A broken leg—lots of pain and NO blood required.

A headache—no blood spilled but could easily be a 4.

We try to give him clear and “visual” examples that really apply to his life so that he can understand, in a more personal way what is really expected of him – and all of us.

We talk about how if we were at Fred Meyer, and a kid bumped into a basket, and it hurt, but was probably a 2, what would we feel like if that person started screaming and yelling like a true shark attack?

The boys are always good at realizing what other people shouldn’t do—but then we talk about the ramifications or consequences of that happening. And boy do we love a good story, especially if it seems a little ridiculous.

In my Fred Meyer example (a store we all frequent) they decided that everyone shopping there would be worried, might go help him, that the checkers would stop helping other people and check on the kid, and that someone would probably call 911 and then the store would be filled with fireman and even an aid car in the parking lot.

That worried the boys.

What a huge problem all over a kid who was upset about the cart bumping him.

Then we talk about what would happen if he had an appropriate reaction—like a two reaction:

His mom would help him, and maybe he could ride in the cart and get something to make him feel better—like a cookie or a matchbox car.


They seemed to see that there was a HUGE different in how we react, especially in public, and what kind of consequenes both good and bad come from it.

These techniques have been hugely helpful at our house for both Nick and Gabe.

And it sure beats saying “Suck it up” all the time. Which incidentally, I still catch myself doing. Ugh.

RECAP of the Shark Attack Method for Overreaction:

1. Define “overreaction” with happy examples;
2. Tell the Boy Who Cried Wolf Story (real or your version);
3. Introduce Scaling (if your kid is older you could use 1-10 but we stick with 1-5 for ease);
4. Decide what the WORST THING EVER would be for your child/family;
5. Practice Scaling everything (all emotions or feelings);
6. Use Scaling during an overreaction;
7. Introduce Blood vs Pain and
8. Keep practicing!

I hope some of you out there are able to use these ideas with your own kids. As always, this has worked with mine, but doesn't mean it will work with yours. But, I know you are all very creative (as is thrust upon us special needs moms) so feel free to adapt these ideas for your own family.

Hope your weekend is Shark-Free,

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