As parents, we want to support our children and solve (or help them solve) an immediate problem or conflict that is causing them any pain and/or suffering. If we notice our child is in distress, or if we hear them scream or cry from another room or another part of the playground, we rush over to find out what happened. And that is where the problem begins.
When a child retreats into “fight or flight” mode, two things happen. First, they become non-verbal, so even children who are usually proficient at expressing themselves may not be able to find words to describe why they are upset. And second, they can’t hear you, because they are so focused on the more immediate feelings of distress.
Think of a time when you were extremely angry. Your toddler just jumped off the couch and landed on your foot. You’re in extreme pain and you’re angry that your toddler was climbing on the couch. Your spouse comes over and says, “Calm down. What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?” You may need a moment to collect yourself before responding. You may be hopping around shouting “Ow, Ow, Ow!” (or shouting expletives that your toddler will certainly begin repeating tomorrow). Your initial response may be to yell at your toddler or your spouse (or both). Are you able to answer a barrage of questions in that moment? Probably not.
Our intention as the parent, teacher, or caregiver, is positive; we want to help the distressed child calm down by resolving the problem at hand. But if we begin by hurtling a bunch of questions at him, we will not be able to make a connection with him. And if you are not connected to your child, you will not be able to help him solve anything. In fact, we may unintentionally make matters worse. We may progress rapidly from gently asking “What’s wrong, honey?” to demanding, “Use your words or I can’t help you!” because we’re frustrated the child simply can’t answer us satisfactorily in that moment.
One successful alternative for connecting with a child in distress is to come over and just sit with her. Offer a hug, rub her back, or just sit near her, for those children that are not ready to be touched yet. Validate the strong emotion she may be feeling (you’re angry, you look upset, you’re mad, you’re frustrated), and wait patiently for her to reach out to you. She may eventually look up, reach out for the offered hug, or calm herself enough to begin talking about what happened. Only then, will you be able to help your child solve the original problem.
Heidi Emberling, MA