The goal with Distancing is to help children learn to stand back from a situation or problem. Then look at it like an outsider, with fewer emotions.
Sound odd? There’s lots of science behind it. Self-distancing has been used for decades to help people get better perspective on problems. You’ve heard people say to themselves, “What would Mom/Dad do in this situation?” That’s distancing. It helps them step back, cool down, and evaluate things with less emotion.
Children can be taught to do the same thing. A delightful study was done to look at how distancing helped preschoolers self-regulate. Some were taught to talk to themselves by name (“Okay, Heather, what are you going to do now.”). Others were taught to take the perspective of a favorite media character and ask themselves, “What would Batman do?” For good experimental control, another group was left to do what they usually do. The results were clear: talking to yourself was pretty good in helping self-regulation. But, thinking like a media character was most helpful. They found, though, for children to benefit the most, they needed to have stronger Theory of Mind (that is, be able to think how someone else thinks).
Lots of children with exceptional learning needs are delayed in developing Theory of Mind so what can we do? I use another form of distancing that doesn’t need much Theory of Mind. I found that, by prompting children to talk to their brain, feet, hands,
mouth, they can more calmly control them. It started one time when a child ripped up a craft. I said, “Oh, look what you did.” The child looked at me ready to dry. I felt horrid. My job was to teach him, not make him cry. I quickly corrected myself and said, “Look what your hands did. They forgot to be gentle. Let’s teach those hands to be gentle.” It worked! He looked at his hands and said, “Be gentle.” He continued to work with a new sense of pride and command over his hands. If a child puts their hand in paint, what can you do to get them to regain self-regulation? Prompt them by saying, “Oh my goodness, look what your hand did. It forgot that brushes are for paint. Tell your hand that brushes are for paint.” This encourages children to distance themselves and act as the ‘control central’ (teacher) of their body. It helps them stay calm and take control of their bodies.
I’ve used distancing with swearing and mean words (“Those swears/mean words just slipped out of your mouth. How can you help your mouth?”), running (“I think your feet forgot to walk. What can you tell your feet”), gentle touching (“What do we tell your hands when you pat the kitten? That’s right, be gentle, hands.”), and in many other situations. By putting our children in the driver’s seat with their own self-regulation, they feel a greater sense of power and are more likely to use it.