Making Sense of Your Child’s Emotional Reactions
School-age children have many opportunities to socialize both in and out of school. The distribution of invitations in classrooms to parties and playdates is common, but this practice can also lend itself to the expression of feelings in ways that are not necessarily socially acceptable (e.g., excluding certain children or rejecting invitations from certain classmates).
Parents and guardians can help children make sense of behavioral expressions by drawing their attention to the feelings that drive their actions, which will help them become increasingly self-aware and, in turn, more effective communicators.
Consider the following scenario:
Billy brought birthday party invitations to school for all of his classmates. As he passed them out, Sarah frowned at hers and pushed it away. Their teacher pointed out to Sarah that she had accepted birthday invitations from other classmates, and that the polite thing to do was to accept the invitation from Billy. Sarah quietly accepted it but appeared to be upset. Their teacher decided to move on by starting the next classroom activity. However, Sarah remained withdrawn and upset throughout the rest of the day.
Billy and Sarah’s teacher did what many teachers would do in this situation. She guided her student to follow a social norm. However, Sarah was not just being impolite — there was a personal basis for her response.
In this situation, the teacher provided an outside fix to the problem: Accept the invitation and move on. But Sarah was left with an inside problem that became evident by her withdrawal and sensitivity throughout the rest of the day.
Outside fixes are short-term. They temporarily cover or distract someone from internal discomfort. While effective in the moment, outside fixes do little to address the inside problem. Outside fixes often solve the immediate issue and help children conform to societal expectations, but do not always help them grow from the inside.
Offering Inside Help
Inside help addresses the problem not from a place of conformity, but from an angle that seeks understanding and respect for a child’s feelings. In our example, the behavioral change was Sarah’s withdrawal and subsequent sensitivity.
Beginning a discussion about a behavioral change can be as simple as showing your understanding (and acceptance) that a child is expressing an emotion for a genuine reason. A teacher or caregiver could say, “Sarah, I can see that you don’t want the invitation from Billy. I know you’ve gone to other birthday parties, so there must be something about the invitation to Billy’s party that is bothering you. Billy, it’s very kind of you to invite Sarah, but we have to figure out what she is trying to tell you by not wanting the invitation.”
A comment like this, even if it doesn’t lead to any further discussion, provides Billy and Sarah with important insight that actions are often expressions of feelings. Sarah has a reason for not wanting the card but has not yet developed the means — or confidence — to verbally articulate her feelings. Ideally, one day Sarah will be able to say, for instance: “Billy, you’ve been teasing me every day on the playground. I don’t want to go to your party!”
Most children do not need this type of specialized inside help. For many, occasional and insightful parental guidance is enough to help them develop self-awareness and expression of feelings and opinions. However, some children quietly suffer or, in other cases, act out in disruptive ways when they have feelings that remain uncomfortable and unexpressed. For these children, simply conforming to society’s expectations can be a challenging and painful experience.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more