Monday, July 4, 2022

Responding to a troubled child

Dealing with the negative emotions of kids is perhaps the most difficult part of parenting. We do not know much about handling our own negative emotions like grief, depression, anger, and anxiety, let alone kids’. To most of us, most of the time when the child comes up with an emotional issue, it’s a monumental task, even though we tend to solve it in minutes without realizing the intensity and sensitivity of the situation.


Here, we will not get into complex stressful situations like death or trauma. We will instead look at a simple and common situation of a child and how we handle it. Suppose a 4-year-old child returns from school with a long face and upon asking tells that the teacher scolded him in front of the class for eating the snacks slowly because of which lunch break got prolonged. There are roughly 4 ways in which we handle; either one or a combination of them:

1)   Sympathizing and giving gyaan: To many of us, the first reaction is generally, “Oh dear, I have to soothe him somehow.” We make it clear that a disaster happened today, but we are there, not to worry. We use “Oh no, how could she do this? This is so bad, my little baby,” and so on (and on and on). The next thing we do is to preach the child that this is how life is. That the world is full of good and bad people, giving us good and bad experiences. That we have to learn to live with such negative experiences just the way we cherish our positive ones. And so on (and on and on).

Side effect: We burden the child with our oh no and my baby.  Instead of taking away his pain, we make him angrier at the teacher by talking against her. We make him feel confused and guilty to see us in pain. We make him more anxious about the reality of this cruel world. As a result, the child feels more miserable than he was earlier.


2)   Erasing: another way in which some of us may respond to the same situation is by trying to erase the pain. For some of us, it is unbearable to see our kid in a problem and we try to act like an eraser. We tell the kid “It’s a small thing. You shouldn’t be so sad about it. With time, you will face bigger problems in life. I know that deep inside you respect your teacher. It’s a momentary thing you are feeling. Don’t worry. Now give me that cute smile and go play outside. You will forget about it.” The child goes outside and we feel relieved to see him smiling again. We also feel proud to have done a great job.

Side effect: The child is left feeling sad as well as awful for feeling sad. He is now burdened with our expectation that there should be no sadness in such situations. He feels he is dumb for acting like a baby. He feels the push from our side to ‘grow up’. He feels depressed now.


3)   Bombarding: Some of us might be just programmed to jump at our kids with questions, answers, and solutions the moment we hear that they have a problem. Upon hearing he is sad, we take out our ‘why-how-when-where’ gun and start firing. We ask him, “Why were you eating so slow? I don’t give you so much in the lunch box that you should take so long! Do you have a toothache? Didn’t you like what I had packed? You must have been looking outside the window! What can you expect from your teacher if you are so careless yourself! She has to handle so many kids! From tomorrow, all you will do in your lunchtime is eat your lunch in the classroom!”

Side effect: No matter how sweetly you bombard, the child gets the wound. No matter how many aah, ooh, baby you add in this monologue. The child feels the firing left right centre. Not only does he have to deal with his emotions, but he also has to deal with the tantrum of his parents (yes, tantrums!). He now experiences all the negative emotions and turmoil of them inside. Sadness, guilt, anger, frustration, self-doubts, anxiety. He feels confused about which one to deal with first. He shuts off his mind and gets into his shell. He fails to come up with a solution of his own.


4)   Listening and empathizing: if we train ourselves to listen to our kid with undivided attention (without any preoccupation with TV, cooking, or books) and make a sincere effort to understand how he is feeling, it makes all the difference. When to a sad child, we say, “Oh, that must have been an embarrassing experience,” he notices that we are tuned in to his inner state and feels relieved to know the word for his real feelings. He feels more encouraged to talk. He may tell how he got stuck with the chapatti that he was not able to tear and eat.  Simple ‘hmmm and I see’ is all that the child may need at this point. It also gives him a space to think clearly and chalk out what he can do from the next day to avoid getting stuck like that again.

Side effects: None!! Absolutely no side effect guaranteed here!!



Having understood the child’s problem, the next step should be to help him get over it. The best way is to give an outlet to the feelings in these possible ways:

-   Wish fulfillment in fantasy. It is a very good way to vent out the steam. If the child says how much he hates school and wishes never to attend any school and face any teacher, it is not a wise idea to mention the impossibility or improbability of the situation. Instead, fulfill his wish in fantasy with “Wouldn’t that be great if you could have it your way! You sure wish to spend all your time with me at home!” Kids do not clearly understand the difference between wish-fulfillment in fantasy and reality. The sense that you are with them in their wish-fulfillment is sometimes all they are looking for.

-   Catch a wish-turning-into-a-tantrum on paper. Ask your whining kid to draw on paper what he is feeling from inside. Be more creative and ask him to spit his anger in the washbasin or tell him to drain away his sadness in the pot. Give him old newspapers and scissors and ask him to cut cut cut till he feels good.

-   Make a colorful list of his feelings and stick it on the fridge. He will feel good that you take his feelings so seriously. Then as you deal with each one of them, keep striking them out with black X’s. When the whole list is glowing with lots of X’s, go out with him on a treat. (Psst.. you can use emoticons instead of words as preschool kids relate better to a pictorial expression of feelings)


Word of caution here:

1) Do not get involved with hysterical anxiety. Your oozing emotions may be too difficult for your child.

2)   Don’t just say or do things mechanically. Sincerity is what the child is expecting.

3)   Do not agree with his negative feelings. Accept them instead. So when he says he is angry with his father who didn’t keep his promise of going to the park, don’t readily say ‘Yes, you are right.’ Instead, say, ‘Oh, you are angry with your father for not taking you to the park today.’ There is a difference between agreeing and accepting.


Moral of the lesson for kids: It’s ok to feel.. It’s not ok to act out!!

Moral of the lesson for mothers: It’s ok to let kids feel miserable.. It’s not ok to make them more miserable by suffering from their sufferings!!