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Make-Up Brushes, Sensory Play & Everyday Regulation Practices

In her book Connections Over Compliance Lori Desautels (2021) writes of draining off a child’s stress with adult calm. While there is lots of rich knowledge about kids, brains, and regulation in this book, the metaphor that meant the most to me was the visual of draining the stress stayed with me. I imagined the grown up, literally a sieve through which the child’s stress filters and drains, gone. This afternoon just me and my four year old were home and I thought we could do some “co-work.” I set her up on a big purple pillow in my office with a mini desk, a pencil-pouch full of crayons, and a sketchbook. I lit a candle and put on some soft piano music and then I sat at my own desk across from her. I opened emails and worked on a programmatic flow chart. It did last a while- maybe 15 minutes or so. Then she started getting whiny. She wanted to pretend she was my puppy, and for a minute it worked for her to lie under my desk panting while I wiggled my toes near her tummy. Then she needed a snack, STAT. We walked downstairs to the kitchen together and then back upstairs to my office and got her settled with sliced cucumber + hummus and a water bottle with crushed ice (ice cubes not acceptable). That lasted 10-12 minutes, while I worked through the first few steps of my flow chart. Then the whining began, again and I cursed myself for not sending this gorgeous child with the stick-straight black hair and big, soulful eyes with my husband, who had whisked her older sisters off to gymnastics, an ostensibly boring activity for a child not in the class. I’d given her a set of silver and gold tiny animal figurines to play with in the storage off of my office, which she and her sisters had taken hostage as a secondary playroom and moved pillows, couches, and scarves into (even though the space really is a storage). From inside the storage room she piped up “I don’t know to do this, mama. I don’t know to play with these. They’s not dogs. They’s zebras and dogs don’t go to the zoo. I’m a dog, mama. I can’t walk, mama. I scrape my leg and I can’t walk. I’m a doggy and I can’t walk, mama. Carry me to the couch….” I shut my laptop. I reached into the Old Navy bag I’d brought home after returning a couple of things this morning. At the check-out, the on-sale make-up brushes had caught my eye, no doubt because I’d been listening to Desautels’ Connections Over Compliance while I drove. She describes an activity with preschoolers in which she uses make-up brushes to disrupt the beginnings of edgy dysregulation (kids fighting over game pieces, kids expressing inflexibility & boredom). Relying on the light, soft touch to activate kids’ nervous systems and support their sensory integration, the make-up brushes in her story were used as tools for connection. When the teacher noticed small moments of dysregulation, she pulled kids from the group and offered instead, a 1:1 sensory experience that highlighted sensory needs, but just as important, highlighted connection. Holding this story close, I asked my sweet and whiny girl if she’d like to try something new with mama. I pulled out the make-up brushes and we took off the plastic. Just the day prior, I’d found her with a facefull of my makeup, and even without the color she was curious about the textures, shapes and sizes of the brushes. In moments, we were playing. “I’m going to paint your eyes!” she squealed in glee. “Circles on your tummy with the fat brush,” I responded. We took turns painting our toes, our faces, our backs and our limbs. Importantly, it was play. Yes, I could leap into making sense of our make-up brush play with bilateral touch, brain based connection and processing, stimulating and calming sensory needs, but what would that serve, except for divorcing me from the sensory experience I was having with the brushes and this child? Our shared experience of play was absolutely the most important thing in turning our afternoon together around. That is what I want to highlight for you: through our humor and playfulness, we resolved her whininess and feelings of not know what to do with her time. We relied on sensory tools- the make up brushes- but the main ingredient of the healing and resetting that we both experienced was not the make-up brushes, it was the play. Yes, the play was sensory-oriented and evoked brain and body connections, and that mattered. But all of that sensory integration and brain/body connection was contained within the context of our play. It is impossible to support our littlest ones without play. I think the reason the image of myself as a sieve for draining off my daughters’ stress resonated so, was that it made me think of me and my body as the instrument, as opposed to the make-up brushes or fidgets or items in a calm-down corner. Yes, there are objects- like in this case, make up brushes (and in other cases, these items might be calm-down corners, fidget spinners, glitter jar timers, or other calming objects) but the truth is- it is not the object that supports the child. It is the engagement in relationship between adult and child that matters, and sometimes objects like make up brushes, blankets, heating pads, and stuffies can enhance that relationship. However, at the end of the day, it is the relationship with the adult that supports regulation. For my little girl, it was not the make-up brushes that supported her regulation. The make-up brushes were a tool. What helped her to come back into her body, get back to normal tone of voice over whining, and ultimately, to resume independent play? It was our shared play with the make-up brushes. She got lots of sensory input as I brushed them over her face, arms, and legs. She got pressure as I moved us from just make-up-brush-play to more high-pressure sensory play. And she got the high quality giggles and love from me, as we pretended we were puppies and brushed the brushes over our faces. Did I finish that programmatic schema? No. I did make some good progress, and when her sisters got home from gymnastics I elected to let them all indulge in screens so I could finish what emails I could. But at the end of the day- what I signed up for in life was these girls. So I’ll be over here, using my whole body to drain off stress from my kids. That might look like curling my body around theirs for postural support during a high tension magna-tile build, or it might look like breaking out the cheap makeup brushes when a sister gets edgy about sharing. Any which way it looks, it will involve dropping my other commitments to show up in an embodied way for my kids. Sometimes I won’t be able to do it, and I’ll need to take care of myself, instead. I’ll need to take my own bath or use the make-up brushes on my own self. That will be OK too- in fact, that is the most important thing I can give to my children…. My own self care and soothing. But when I can be their sieve, it will involve quite literally, using my body to support them to los the extra stress and show up exactly as they are- beautiful, confident, independent little souls in whom I delight. And yet- all children have this core, and it’s our job as the grownups to be the sieve, to shine them up, to see their glimmer even when it’s cloudy and hard- and to move with them towards a clearing, knowing and holding always that glimmer, that hope, that beauty.

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