The Undertow: What Is This Fresh Hell?!?

By Melissa Holland Mansika


There is what happens, and then there is what we make it mean – and the key lesson is that these are two different things. Case in point: The Undertow.

My funny, smart, loving four-year old son was lying on the couch when he started thrashing around; pulling my hair, hitting me, all with a strange look on his face, angry, amused, vacant. He threw himself to the ground, flailing his arms and legs while yelling “I have bad feelings!”. This marks the beginning of what we now refer to as “The Undertow” – when we were swept away in an unexpected strong rip current.

He went into the kitchen, found a butter knife and came after my husband, saying “it’s cutting time”. He stood in the living room in front of Grammy, while looking at her, said to my husband “I’m going to kill your mommy.”

We later determined it was a perfect storm of events, leading to this breaking point.

Before learning “self-reg”, as a way to view misbehavior and intense behavior as stress behavior, I would have easily made this mean that I was a terrible mother, unfit and that my son was irreparably “damaged” from the trauma of adoption and in utero drug exposure. Thankfully, through the self-reg lens, we could see this intense period of time through a different, more productive and ultimately, kinder lens.

Imagine a barn, with a cow. In the barn, there are a number of mice, and each mouse can view just part of the cow from his little mousehole; one just sees the tail, another just sees the hooves, and another can only see the head. But each mouse is sure he’s seeing “The Cow” in its entirety. Lively and feisty mouse discussion follows as each tries to convince the other what a cow is!

When we went through this experience with our son, we left no stone unturned and connected with every expert and practitioner that we could think of…and each one viewed the complex situation and the mysterious and complete mystery that is this small human, Max, through their own mousehole. They each had their own lens through which to view what was going on, and why, and steps to take. For example, our play therapist talked to us about birth trauma; our occupational therapist talked to us about sensory integration challenges and our doctor talked to us about eliminating wheat and dairy. And each one was right: partially. And each one was helpful: partially. From this experience, I developed the “5% Rule”; I had been looking for the magic bullet that would turn the whole situation around, and instead discovered that everything we did, helped, about 5% or so. It was a process.

When I discovered the self-reg approach, about one year after The Undertow, I felt like I had found the underlying, foundation that had been missing, that encompassed ALL of the expert’s views in one cohesive whole. For the first time, I felt like I could see the whole cow.

Self-reg invites us to view stress through a very fundamental understanding of what stress is: it is not just psycho-emotional stress (though that is significant) but it is anything that causes the body to use up energy to get back to normal, back to homeostasis; it is a state of low energy and high tension.



And the five key steps of the Shanker Method of Self-Reg provide the guideposts that lead us through the journey of developing self-regulation in response to stress:

  • by reframing the behavior,

  • recognizing the stressors,

  • reducing the stress,

  • reflecting on how stress vs calm is experienced in the body

  • and responding with strategies to restore and develop resilience.

And recognizing the stressors of a person is so unique to each individual, and sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden, that one must become a “stress detective” and carefully explore five domains for the possible stressors lurking there: Emotional, Cognitive, Social, Pro-social and Biological.

When I reflected on what stressors this beautiful four-year-old boy could be holding that caused The Undertow, those months of intense and challenging behavior, here’s a short, rough list:

Emotional: the trauma of experiencing his birth-mother in utero for nine months and then being thrust into the arms of strangers; the sadness of his long-time nanny moving away; leaving the Montessori pre-school he had been in; and the disappointment at the summer camp at his old preschool closing unexpectedly.

Cognitive: the stress of the school demands he experienced in a large multi-age Montessori classroom with the expectation that even at three years of age, he would choose a “work” to do and thoughtfully focus on it. He once told me: “so many of the kids know what they’re doing and I can’t do it."

Social: starting preschool and navigating new social relationships.

Pro-social (opposite of antisocial, pro-social stressors are reacting to the big feelings of others and feeling intense empathy for others.): witnessing his parents’ excessive stress during this time, due to work situations, finances and aging, unwell parent; sometimes almost seeming psychic in how attuned he is to the feelings of others.

Biological: being exposed to drugs (possibly meth, heroin and/or cocaine, in addition to alcohol) in utero due to a young birthmother who hadn’t realized she was pregnant for the first five months; finally eliminating wheat, dairy and artificial colors, to reduce inflammation and discomfort, like stomachaches, headaches and behavior; suffering months of constipation, stomachaches and headaches, which finally led to a diagnosis of a strep infection in his gut. But the final piece that sent him over the edge was giving him over the counter Miralax, prescribed by his pediatrician for constipation. He had a neuropsychiatric reaction to that, which can cause violent thoughts, excessive irritability, and wild mood swings.


It has now been three years since the start of The Undertow. Thankfully, we began our response to the Undertow, those incredibly challenging behaviors, with the idea that he was under an extreme amount of stress due to the physical factors we identified above, and the numerous transitions we all experienced at that time. For the last year and a half, discovering Self-Reg, our journey towards regulation, expanding our comfort level of being calm, focused and alert, developing resilience to stress, has become not only an intentional ongoing process to support Max, but to support all three of us, as a family and as individuals. It’s for all of us. And we are so thankful, because the results show genuine and welcome progress on our journey to Self-Reg.


Original Blog Here

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