Peace Castles: An Emotional Regulation Metaphor

Peace Castles: An Emotional Regulation Metaphor

Earlier in the fall I had a convo with an exceptional friend about the complexities of behavior at the camp we run for kids with autism. We started building a fun metaphor about Peace Castles that I’m excited to share.

PART I. What are Peace Castles?

Recall the last time you felt perfectly satisfied- put yourself into the carefree moment where you were doing exactly what you wanted, physically comfortable and healthy, with all of your favorite things available to you. Where were you? What were you doing? What was on your menu of possibilities to continue this state of bliss? The contents of that list are now the building blocks of your personal Peace Castle.

On most days, our castles are up against the elements. 

Some damage only creates minor issues- leaky faucets or a closet door that won’t quite close.  

You wore the shirt with the itchy tag again. Overslept. Stubbed a toe.

You can live with these imperfections in your castle, but you can’t help but notice their nagging presence.

On other days, they are under attack. 

These blows have you in full crisis management. Calling everywhere for an emergency plumber and watching the tenth YouTube video on the sealing pipes that are causing your whole first floor to flood.

You were in a car accident. Lost your job. Ended a relationship.

These make the castle uninhabitable. You can’t repair it right away, and you can’t stop thinking about it while it sits, unlivable and anything but peaceful.

We all have our areas of expertise when it comes to small and large-scale repairs of our own Peace Castles. You meditate. Listen to music. Go for a run. Do anything that allows you to reset the peace inside yourself. We also all have a baseline limitation of tolerating damages. The tolerance may vary based on the type or perceived magnitude of damage, but our “repair alarms” are programmed specifically to our own Peace Castles and the supplies and skills we have at any given time.

Two factors here often vary for kids: 
1. Their bandwidth for tolerating damage.

Is it a leaky faucet or a flooded first floor?

2. Their tools for rebuilding.

I don't know how to respond and re-regulate. 

Kids are typically operating inside systems built by adults, under which they have little control over most parameters, and thus, can’t always opt into the repair tactics that could fix their damages.

An aside for neurodivergent populations.

We often see kids on the spectrum using tools for rebuilding that look different from what we expect (refusal to transition, self-stimming, sensory deprivation, elopement). At our camps, we run a role-play training session to specifically convey this to our staff and equip them with skills to be apprentices to their campers, so that campers may become expert general contractors of their own kingdoms.


PART II. Meltdown Carnival & Tool Kits for Kids

Enter the Meltdown Carnival. This staff evening activity at training serves as a culmination of Autism Skills Day covered earlier in the day. Counselors spend the day going through skills rotations, learning about sensory needs and communication tools, and reading up on the campers who will soon fill their cabins. They then go to the Meltdown Carnival to practice their skills. Here is an example of one carnival stop. 

 Dragons cabin (Group of staff): arrives at the beach

Sprinks (serving as the camper in this scenario): sitting on the beach, fully immersed in her character prompt as a camper playing in the sand.

Camper Prompt: It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the breeze is blowing and you, my friend, are basically a sandcrab.  You LOVE the feel of the sand on your feet. Freeswim is pretty much the only reason you came to this stupid camp. 

 Director Facilitator(to the Dragons): “It is the first free swim, and your camper seems to really enjoy the sand.  She spends the whole time playing in the sand, and now it is time to change for dinner.” 

Queue award-winning acting. 

Camper Prompt: It feels like you’re there for 10 seconds splashing and sand-crabbing, before someone rudely interrupts to tell you some unbelievable news. “OVER?! How can free swim be OVER?!  That doesn’t sound very free at all.  And also, you’re not swimming so who cares if free swim is over, I’m in the sand!  As the pressure to leave your sandy nest builds, you become more and more of an anxious sand monster. You won’t get up. Your castle is under attack. 

Acting notes: If someone puts their hands on you – freak out. If someone gets too close to your space, escalate verbal protests and (pretend to) pinch and scratch. 

This is when dragons counselors attempt all the tools they’ve learned earlier in the day. Sprinks deescalates, re-escalates, and rolls around in the sand, waiting for someone to nail the combo-move solution she’s been given in her prompt:

Camper Prompt Solution: You need to know when you can come back to the sand. You need this info in writing. You need a timer and at least a semi-motivating reason to leave. 

We often see challenging behaviors at camp come as a result of anxiety paired with a skills deficit or a lack of information. The Peace Castle is under attack, and the camper either knows how to fix it but has no tools OR has the tools but is unsure if or how they can be used. 

In this meltdown rotation, the camper’s Peace Castle is built on the lake. Leaving free swim makes the camper feel like the entire castle is coming down and counselors saying “It’s time for dinner, we have to go now” is only collapsing the walls faster. Here the camper has no tools available. No power over the schedule or their access to the beach. No knowledge that the beach will return in all its glory in just a few short hours. 

What we want to be true at our camps is for the adults in charge to be compassionately curious. It starts with getting to know their campers- taking extensive tours of their Peace Castles. The more we understand about them when they are in pristine condition, the more easily we will recognize the precursors of damage. From there, we can find the motivations for behavior and empower kids with tools and how-to guides to maintain their Peace Castles at camp and beyond. 

Want to dig in more on inclusion & belonging? We've got the sandbox and shovel!


Breezy-1Kristin "Breezy" McMaster

Camper Enrollment, Camp SkyWild

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