A few weeks ago, a beautiful young lady joined a regular school group I facilitate. She has attended 3 times now. I swear the air crackles around this girl. She has so much energy her little body can barely contain it. I do believe she spends most of her day floating 10 feet off the ground – masses of energy!
In my experience, energy like this is a symptom of a massive fight for survival. Even if the energy seems to be positive and happy, it’s not normal for people to exist in a constant state of high arousal. It’s not normal for dogs either.
One of my dogs, Kelly, is a great example of excess energy. Kelly is a super sweet dog that was given to me some years ago now. Kelly was bred to work stock but after having to fish her out from underneath the sheep in the race for about the 100th time, her owners figured she wasn’t cut out for it. She is a naturally super submissive dog, extremely sweet, and totally incapable of dealing with anger from dog or human. Yell at her and she is gone. Yell at someone/something else while she is around and she’s gone too. Can’t deal, won’t deal.
The other thing you notice about Kelly is a complete lack of belief in herself. She has no confidence in herself at all. And you can’t help but notice the extreme energy of the dog. I mean, she is hyper. Wild eyes, can’t stop running, barks at anything that moves or stays still.
All of these aspects of Kelly’s nature are related. How do I know? Because if I fill Kelly with confidence in her ability to do something I am asking, using only positive reinforcement techniques and I don’t try to contain the excess energy, Kelly gets focused and quiet and slow. Kelly’s manic energy is a symptom of her lack of confidence and her fear.
Kelly is an extreme example. Not many dogs can live in a heightened state like she does and not resort to violence. Violence is a natural pressure release valve and a natural strategy to fend off fear. When she first came to us, Kelly was a little inclined to get rough but the hard work had been done with her as a pup to properly handle her and she had an abiding trust in humans even if they sometimes scared the bejesus out of her. She would never run away and not come back. She always just hid under the sheep until they stopped yelling.
Kelly’s energy level is alternately funny and endearing or annoying and infuriating. Kinda depends on the situation. When I first met this gorgeous young electro-girl in my sessions, I could see right off that her energy was the same as Kelly’s. Apparently so could Kelly and they choose each other every week.
At this point in her life, most of this girls energy is destructive, to herself and to those around her. She can’t stop talking, gets distracted even when she’s distracted, gets bored and disengages super quick and often resorts to violence with her peers.
Her story is sad but not unusual for the kids I work with. Home life ain’t much chop, no one to care if she’s feeling crappy, if she didn’t cook for herself she wouldn’t eat. She hasn’t lived with her parents for some years now and mainly stays with extended family. She moves around a lot.
Her huge eyes are aggressively defensive. She doesn’t trust anything you say and is ready to flee at the first sign of trouble. She is totally incapable of dealing with disapproval, let alone anger. Faced with harsh words or with high expectations, she will lash out or leave.
In our last session together, last week, Kelly and her were working on mastering the ‘wait’ command (I prefer to use ‘wait’ rather than ‘stay’). This is not, as you would expect, a strong point with Kelly and neither does this young handler excel at it. So it was a fair challenge. There were moments when I thougt the frustration would defeat them both. The handler yelled her frustration and Kelly got scared and needed reassurance. As they continued to not succeed I feared this young girl would have no more patience and reassurance in her.
Then the break thorough. (I love it when this happens). After watching this go on for a while and the two try to work each other out, I asked the question: Think of a time when someone was asking you to do something you couldn’t understand or couldn’t do. What did you need them to do, in order for you to able to succeed?
The girl’s immediate response was to blow me off but I just walked away and left her with it. A lot of thinking went into it while she stroked Kelly’s ears. At some point she decided that Kelly needed her to be soft, and understanding. She built Kelly’s confidence doing the things she knows how to do (like ‘sit’ and ‘down’) then she tried an easy ‘wait’ and got super excited when Kelly could do it for her.
And then the bonus (which happens hardly ever).
“She did it!”
“Wow, go you. How did you get her to do it?”
“She’s just like me. Like, really. She just needed me not to get razzed up. I wish my mum saw that.”
… she got it. She saw the connection. She knew what she needed and she saw it in the dog. This is no small thing for a kid in her situation. This is a massive thing for a kid with her lived experience.
Then another bonus. By filling this hurting young soul with such confidence in her ability to complete a set task with her dog, I made room for this kid to let go of her fear for a little bit. For a short while she came down from the clouds and spent about 10 minutes with us in the here and now. She flopped on the grass, curled up with her dog, and talked to me about what it’s like at home. It didn’t last long but I got a glimpse of the hurting soul behind the energy.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to teach a child like this in a classroom. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be when she is constantly pinging off the ceiling, obstructing your ability to engage other students and challenging you every time you set a boundary.
I also can’t imagine what it’s like living in a constant state of fear that someone is going to prove that you really are as worthless as you suspect you are. That someone will prove all your fears are real and that you have finally done whatever it is that makes your life worthless.
I don’t have any magic to offer. But I know that the only way to resolve the manic energy cycle is to praise, commend, reinforce and applaud. Positive reinforcement all the way. Positive reinforcement is where you ignore the bad and reward the good. Poor self-esteem means that an individual is unable to process punishment in any sort of useful way. It doesn’t mean anything to a scared puppy when you yell at him. It means nothing except that you are scary.
Don’t judge this child on her ability to destroy your peace and quiet. Don’t judge her for the violence she inflicts and the disruption she causes. Don’t judge her until you have enabled her to reach the lofty heights of feeling ok about, and within, herself. She deserves to at least hear the question before you punish her for not knowing the answer.
In the meantime, my magnificent team of dogs do an amazing job of filling her with a sense of achievement and belief in herself. If we keep meeting often enough, her cup will one day runneth over and you better believe that when that day arrives, she will be ready to take on the world.