Codeword Strawberry

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

I can’t explain how frustrated my wife and I were with our 6.5 year old daughter. It was a feeling of helplessness like I had never known before. Her…I don’t even know what to call them they were so beyond tantrums. It was almost like she had a mental breakdown and she just became this screaming, yelling, out of control being. And once she started there was no way to stop her or bring here back from the ledge. Gem and I were exhausted, drained, and losing hope.

We tried so many different things. We gave her timeouts. We took away privileges and toys and books, anything we could think of that she likes. We tried to reward her good behavior with treats and toys. Nothing really worked. We tried to cut her off at the pass, to prevent her from “losing it” but that worked inconsistently at best and was exhausting. We tried teaching her about her emotions, about “articulating” (a word she really enjoys saying), and while that had potential it also came up short.

After a particularly terrible couple of days when her behavior escalated to “losing it” for the first time in front of friends we had over, we sat down with Dorit and had a little chat. I’m extremely fortunate in that I have a very special connection with my little girl; she is truly a Daddy’s girl and I love pretty much every minute of it. We have always been able to communicate – especially about complicated emotions. But I had no idea she could communicate enough to help us help her.

‘Sweetie Girl, what’s going on with you?” I asked trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.

“Daddy, I just have to let it out,” she said simply. And I knew we were on to something.

My little girl’s emotions were utterly and completely overwhelming her – especially when she wasn’t getting what she wanted. Essentially, her emotions were so powerful and had out-developed her development of tools to manage them. When they overwhelmed her, she lost all control. What we needed was to help her be aware at the moment she felt that churning of emotions inside of her and to give her something to articulate easily and quickly.

“You know what we need, Sweetie Girl? We need a codeword.”

Her twin brother went through something similar awhile ago and we gave him a codeword to tell us when he started getting upset, but before he threw a tantrum. It worked and he doesn’t even need to use it anymore. If Dorit had a codeword, a single word she could say out loud to let us know her emotions were getting the better of her, than we could help talk her down from the ledge. In the process, she would hopefully learn to be more aware of her emotions and learn how to deal with them in a healthier way.

After I explained to her my idea, I asked her what codeword would she want to use.

“Codeword Strawberry!” Since strawberries are her favorite food that actually made a lot of sense.

Dorit has been using Codeword Strawberry for over a week now. I asked her last night how it was going and she said, “It has changed MY LIFE!” in that lovingly melodramatic way she has. When I relayed that to my wife, she readily agreed. It has changed all of our lives.

When my little girl starts to get all caught up in her emotions, she almost always says “Codeword Strawberry!” to alert us that she is getting upset. Sometimes that alone, sharing her sense of being overwhelmed with us, is enough to help calm her down. Sometimes we have to talk to her and help her talk about her feelings. Sometimes we just give her a hug. Sometimes we just distract her and she relaxes. If she doesn’t remember to use it, either my wife and I reminds her, but even her brother has jumped in to say, “Codeword Strawberry, Dorit. Codeword Strawberry.” Amazing how two words can empower us all.

Now we have had many more days without her outbursts than with them and all of us feel something we haven’t felt in awhile….Hope.