Many years ago, I was working with a child with aggressive behavior problems and his parents. As I recall, he was 8 years old at the time. He was so easily angered. Some children are. By the time an 8 year-old child who has trouble regulating anger and has a great deal of trouble with impulse control, they typically have a lot of practice being aggressive and being impatient. There is an automatic reflex for disappointment and frustration.

The boy had been playing with toys, Legos I believe. It was time to clean up. There are children who kind of lose it when they are told to clean up. He was one of those children. Now, I don’t set things up so that kids will blow a fuse. I wrote out the session schedule as a check list. An example of this kind of schedule might be as follows. 1) Grown up talking time, 2) Show and tell, 3) Grown up talking time, 4) Show and tell, 5) Clean-up time, and 6) prize time.

In other words, “clean-up time” did not come out of the blue. But as soon as the words, “It’s time to clean-up” were uttered, I could see the boy’s brow knit and his fist clench. He picked up some Legos and I could tell that he was planning to throw them across the room.

A big part of my job is observing and waiting for little opportunities. Opportunities to offer a child a chance to do something different. An opportunity to be appreciated by an adult in a positive way. Once these opportunities present themselves I have to work extremely quickly.

I picked up the Lego bin, smiled, and said, “Oh you look like you are ready to put those Legos away! Thanks so much for helping!” His face relaxed and he put them in the bin. I said, “Wow, I bet you are really fast at putting things away. Oh look at that!  You put all of those away. Oh, there are some more in the corner! There you go, I knew you were fast. Thank you for taking care of the toys. That means that other children will be able to play with them. You have been very kind.”

Did that interchange solve all of the boys problems? No, it didn’t. But I do believe that it opened a window to how things could be different. For how helping can be powerful. For how seeing the positive possibilities in another human being can be powerful rather than naive. And more important than showing this possibility to the boy was the fact that the window was opened for his parents, to see their son as capable of positive growth.

It doesn’t always work when I try to take these opportunities to make a shift with my patients, with their families, with my loved ones, or with myself. But sometimes it works and works beautifully. As I become more mindful in my own life, I look for these micro-opportunities to make changes in my own life, in the way I think about things or in the way I behave.

I often tell children, “One of the best things about life is that you almost always get another chance. Every day is a new opportunity.”