Date: October 25th, 2016 | BY Joe Wilmot
The other day I read an article about Andy Williams, the 15-year-old Santana High School student in San Diego, California, who in 2001 shot and killed two schoolmates and wounded 13 others. When asked about her son’s actions, Andy’s mother replied, “I never saw any real moodiness there, other than teenage stuff, and then you’d just change the subject and he was fine.”
That same night, while channel surfing, I came across a movie in which a husband and wife were telling their children that they were getting divorced. Each time the children — both of who were under 5 — expressed sadness, fear, or uncertainty, both parents quickly stepped in and told their children, “You’ll be fine, you’ll see. We’ll always love you. Mommy and daddy will just be happier if they live separately. Don’t be sad; everything’s gonna be fine.”
At first glance, the adults’ reactions to their children’s emotions described in the two situations above don’t seem troubling. When she noticed that her son seemed upset, Andy Williams’s mother tried to help her son forget what was bothering him. She tried to cheer him up. And the parents in the movie were trying to communicate to their children that their divorce would not affect their relationship with their children in any way — and, that everything would be fine.
Shouldn’t we try to help ease children’s painful emotions?
Sweeping emotions under the rug
It is understandable that as adults we want to protect children from difficult or painful emotions — particularly because we know that most of the problems they face are pretty harmless. The trouble with this, however, is that, just like sweeping dirt under the rug isn’t actually cleaning, distracting children’s attention from their feelings doesn’t resolve their problems, nor does it make the feelings they are struggling with go away. We may temporarily calm children down when we distract them, but whatever negative thoughts or confusion inspired those feelings will remain an issue. And more often than not those negative emotions stay inside children where they fester and can end up damaging their self-concept and their self-esteem. Moreover, when we try to distract or stop children from expressing negative emotions, we send a secondary message: It’s not okay to talk about these feelings.
Another problem in jumping to their emotional rescue is that oftentimes young children only express what lies at the surface of the problem. A child might say, “Billy doesn’t like me.” While the child truly feels sad that Billy doesn’t seem to like her, she might also be struggling with more troubling thoughts such as “I’m unlikable,” or “I don’t fit in — there’s something wrong with me.” By merely diverting the surface issue — say, with a comment like, “Don’t be silly, Billy is your friend” — we would miss out on the opportunity to help the child identify and deal with a possible deeply felt insecurity or concern.
Helping children deal with difficult emotions like sadness, rejection, fear, and frustration, rather than just trying to soothe them isn’t easy because we naturally want to spare children any kind of suffering. There are also negative emotions we don’t like hearing about because they upset us. I’m referring specifically to anger, aggravation, antagonism, and animosity. We often try to squelch these emotions because we feel they’re societally inappropriate, or because we fear that children who are allowed to express such feelings will progress to more serious unacceptable behaviors.
To illustrate this point, try this little test: You’re a teacher who’s been dealing with a 5-year-old who often doesn’t pay attention and interrupts others by whispering to her classmates. You’ve warned her about this before, you’ve noted it on her behavior chart, you moved her seat, you’ve made agreements with her, yet today she does it yet again. You’re frustrated because you’ve again had to waste time quieting her down and then repeating yourself because she’s missed important information about an activity. Her behavior is very disruptive. Fed up, you tell her that you’re going to speak with her parents about this ongoing problem. When she hears this, she immediately starts throwing a tantrum, screaming “You’re not fair!” and crying.
How would you respond to this outburst? Just go with your initial reaction. Say it out loud or write it down. Go ahead and try this now, then come back to the article.
Now that you’re back, check to see if your response(s) match any of the ones listed below, which are common responses seen in the classroom.
- “That earns you a time out.”
- “Hey, it’s OK. Just calm down.”
- “If you would learn to pay attention, this wouldn’t happen.”
- “You’re acting like a baby.”
- “Stop it!”
- You put her in time out, and then lecture her about her behavior later.
- You place another negative mark on her behavior chart.
- You call her parents and tell them you need to speak with them about her disruptive behavior.
The point of this exercise (and this entire article, in fact) is to show that some of the typical ways adults react when children make emotionally charged statements is to say something — give an order, warn, moralize, advise, praise, reassure, interrogate, divert, and so forth. Adults also do something, like resort to time-out. We usually feel compelled to take some action that attempts to divert the child’s attention in order to extinguish misbehavior or quiet children down.
We have more life experience than children do, so, naturally, we feel we should step in and do something. When we react to children’s sadness, fear, or anxiety by praising, reassuring, diverting, or advising, it’s usually because we empathize with their feelings and want them to realize that the problem is solvable, or because we want to protect them from uncomfortable emotions.
When we respond with commands, warnings, moralizing, or blaming, it is usually because we fear that letting an incident go unaddressed could lead to its happening repeatedly in the future. For example, we might think that if we just let a child interrupt the class today, tomorrow she’ll become even bolder and her interruptions will become increasingly disruptive. Or we might be afraid that if a child is sad because his classmate said something mean to him, the child will become overly sensitive if we don’t point out that “you shouldn’t worry about what people say.”
The effects of sweeping emotions under the rug
These common reactions are clearly intended to help children. But how do children receive and interpret these messages and actions?
To answer this question, let’s go back and look at the last situation from the 5-year-old’s perspective.
Pretend you’re the 5-year-old. You’ve been trying to pay attention to what your teacher is saying, and you’re trying to avoid getting in trouble. Sam, a boy in your class, however, calls you names and has started making fun of your new glasses. When you told your teacher that you don’t like Sam, he lectured you about saying things about others that weren’t nice. Now you’re afraid that he thinks you are bad, and, on top of everything, he never seems to catch Sam taunting you.
Even worse, you really hate wearing glasses because none of your friends have them. You think that you really do look stupid and ugly, so what Sam says just reinforces what you already feel. Just now, it happens again — the teacher confronts you about your behavior, and you’re scared that he’s going to tell your parents. How would you react? Remember: you’re only 5.
- You’d argue and fight.
- You’d cry.
- You’d get angry and resentful.
- You’d feel unaccepted the way you are.
- You’d feel as though you aren’t understood.
- You’d feel angry toward your classmate.
- You’d feel as though you were being singled out.
- You’d feel frustrated.
- You’d feel your teacher just doesn’t care.
- You’d feel confused because you were trying to behave, and now you’re being punished.
- You’d feel hurt and alone.
Thankfully, there are ways to handle situations when children express emotions — both acceptable ones, like fear and anxiety, and negative ones, like anger and hostility — that can make a drastic difference in the way children feel about themselves and the way they learn to manage their emotions and cope with difficult situations.
Even though listening skills sound fairly straightforward, there’s a great deal of depth and nuance to effective listening. It demands an awareness and understanding for doing it correctly and plenty of practice. When done correctly, effective listening will allow you to decode what a child is saying. Once you do this, you can identify any underlying issues and help the child resolve whatever conflict they are struggling with.
Here’s a quick look at the four basic listening skills. Think of the following as a jumping-off point.
The Four Basic Listening Skills
Passive Listening: This refers to the act of listening without saying anything, usually after you pick up on signals, either verbal or non-verbal, that the child is feeling some kind of difficult emotion. Passive listening can encourage children to continue talking, and it often conveys acceptance. Your focus during passive listening should be on trying to understand the child’s message. (Sometimes children will be apprehensive and won’t continue talking. If so, see skill number 3.)
Acknowledgement Responses: These are responses such as “Uh-huh,” “Oh, I see,” and gestures that communicate that you’re being attentive and that you are interested in what the child is saying.
Door-Openers (invitations to say more): These are comments, such as “Do you want to talk about it?” “Tell me more,” or “Sounds like you’ve got something on your mind,” that are used to encourage children to continue or to go deeper. These responses are crucial because they signal your attention and attunement to children’s feelings without communicating your judgments or feelings.
Active Listening: This is by far the most effective listening skill. During active listening, you should not try to convey an actual message but instead merely mirror what the child is saying. Active Listening differs from passive listening because the person who is listening is actively demonstrating an understanding of the speaker’s message by reiterating what the speaker has said in the listener’s own words. Therefore, if the listener misunderstands the message, the speaker can correct him.
Now for an example of Active Listening in action, let’s revisit our 5-year-old’s situation. The teacher confronts her after the activity about her disruptions and she throws a tantrum:
Child: “You’re not fair!” (She starts crying.)
Teacher: “You feel like I’m blaming you.”
Child: “Yeah, I didn’t do anything.”
Teacher: “You’re angry because you don’t feel you did anything wrong”
Child: “Yeah. Billy is being mean to me.”
Teacher: “So he started it.”
Teacher: “Do you want to tell me about it?”
Child: (Sighs) “Yeah. Billy calls me four-eyes and makes fun of me.”
Teacher: “And this upsets you.”
Child: “Yeah. He says that I’m ugly.”
Teacher: “That must hurt your feelings.”
Child: “I don’t like wearing glasses because they are ugly. I wish I didn’t have to wear them.”
The most important thing to notice here is that the episode started with the child being upset with the teacher. After a couple rounds of Active Listening, she opened up and shared a deeper concern, which was the deeper reason she was upset: she was not only upset because a classmate is teasing her; she also feels ugly because she has to wear glasses. She revealed what most likely is a sensitive secret. Had the teacher focused only on the misbehavior, he would have missed out on an opportunity to find out what was at the root of the child’s behavior. That is where good listening skills come in handy: as a tool that can be used to effectively deal with any and all kinds of challenging emotions.
Listening to those seemingly not-so-serious problems can unearth larger issues. Children need to know that someone understands what they’re feeling. By listening to children, we allow them to talk about the emotions that may be causing them discomfort, which then opens the door to teaching them how to handle these emotions.
In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Psychologist John M. Gottman shines a light on how this works: “In its most basic form, empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. As empathic parents, when we see our children in tears, we can imagine ourselves in their position and feel their pain. Watching our children stamp their feet in anger, we can feel their frustration and rage.” “If we can communicate this kind of intimate emotional understanding to our children,” he continues, “we give credence to their experience and help them learn to soothe themselves. This skill puts us, as river rafters might say, ‘in the chute.’ No matter what rocks or rapids lie ahead in our relationships with our children, we can stay in the flow of the river, guiding them forward on course. Even if the course becomes extremely treacherous (as in adolescence it often does), we can help children steer past obstacles and risks to find their way.”
One major benefit of using active listening skills to reflect children’s emotions is that, in the process, we’re actually teaching them the vocabulary of emotions. When we say, “Wow, you’re really mad at Jenny because she hit you,” or “You get frustrated when you can’t find your toy,” or even, “You get angry with me when I make you get into the car seat,” what we’re doing is labeling the emotion children are feeling. This is how children build up a vocabulary that will eventually enable them to express their needs using words instead of behaviors such as throwing tantrums, hitting, yelling, or — worse — retreating without letting us know what’s going on inside.
I can’t help but wonder if Andy Williams’s life might have been different if he’d been given the opportunity to vent his frustrations and pains, if he’d been taught constructive ways to channel those negative emotions. It may be too late for Andy, but there are many children out there who sure could use a friendly ear.
In his books Parent Effectiveness Training, P.E.T. and Teacher Effectiveness Training, T.E.T., Dr. Thomas Gordon outlined the following 12 categories of typical parent/teacher responses that tend to block communication because they cause people to stop sharing their feelings, get defensive, avoid the subject, or give in.
- Ordering, commanding, directing: “Stop talking, and pay attention.”
- Warning, threatening: “If you don’t stop talking, I’ll call your parents.”
- Moralizing, preaching: “You know you should listen while others are speaking.”
- Advising, offering solutions: “If you were to sit someplace else, you would be able to pay attention.”
- Teaching, lecturing: “You need to listen in order to learn.”
- Judging, blaming: “You are just plain disruptive and inconsiderate.”
- Name-calling, labeling: “You’re being a baby.”
- Interpreting, analyzing: “You’re doing that just to get attention.”
- Praising: “You’re a good kid.”
- Reassuring, consoling: “You’re not the first person to ever struggle with this.”
- Questioning: “How do you think you can stay focused on what we are doing?”
- Distracting, diverting, using sarcasm: “Hey, I bet you’ve learned a lot during this activity.”
Keep in mind that some of the above comments are perfectly fine when neither you nor the child is experiencing a problem. For example, it’s perfectly fine to ask questions, joke around, analyze, advise, teach, and so on, when children seek advice or when it’s obvious they’re not struggling with a problem. These responses become roadblocks, however, when children are upset, angry, scared, or frustrated.
Active listening is both a science and an art. People who are trying this skill for the first time often end up just parroting exactly what the other person said, which can feel uncomfortable and artificial to both the listener and the person who’s speaking. Also, if you’re focusing hard on what the other person is saying and mentally rehearsing an active listening response, then you’ll find you’re not really listening.
A great way to get around this is to start by trying to pinpoint the actual emotion behind the message. This way when you’re listening to a stream of words whose essence is “I’m scared,” you can feel confident that you’ve grasped the core of the message and you can relax and be present with the child. Then you can show your empathy and understanding by saying something like, “Hmm, sounds like this is scary to you.”
Try this experiment at home. Next time someone (your child, spouse, or friend) tells you something, and you perceive they’re sharing an emotion, hone in on it and use an active listening response. For example, if your spouse says something like, “Boy, if I could only fire my boss, I’d be so happy.” Respond by saying something like, “Sounds like you’ve had a hard day,” then watch how your spouse reacts. What kind of conversation unfolds? Does your spouse’s body language change? Resist the urge to share your perspective or talk about what you did during the day.
Next time you’re feeling upset about something, talk to someone and listen to see if they use any roadblocks on you. See if you can classify them by type. Notice how it feels when someone responds with “Oh, you’ll be fine,” or “What you should do is…” This is a great way to learn to avoid using them yourself.