To calm a frightened child we must first calm ourselves.
This popped into my head when working with a 7th grader earlier this week. I was running a school social skills group, and he was having a really hard time pulling it together. His attention was all over the place, he refused to participate, and his negativity and anxiety were permeating the group.
This type of challenging behavior is a clear sign of frustration at not having language to communicate or self-regulation to override the internal distress. Unable to provide the emotional support he needed to be successful in the group setting at that given moment, I offered that he return to class early.
In a situation like this, I prefer to simplify an activity and revert back to techniques that improve a child’s regulatory and emotional states. However, with only a few minutes remaining of our session, I chose to cut our losses and touch base with him later.
As humans, we tend to reflect each others’ emotional and energetic state. Too often we get caught up in a child’s distress and start feeling frustrated, on-edge and irritable. However, what adults must remember is that a child’s poor attention and “acting out” means he needs more support (not less), often in areas of communication and feelings.
A child who struggles with a skill will unconsciously “provoke” chaos in an attempt to take control of a situation where he typically has poor outcomes. He finds comfort and familiarity in getting yelled at by an adult or being seen by his peers as defiant, rather than placing himself in a vulnerable position where he may fail and then feel “stupid”.
In a difficult moment, try to remember that the most powerful reward for a child is to receive positive attention, approval and affection. If you are unable to provide this reinforcement, consider taking a break so that he does not feel the pain of losing your support.
When my social skills group ended, I sought out my frustrated child and started a conversation about what happened. I made sure he knew the reason for breaking off early was because I, the adult, was unable to fully support him in being successful in the group.
I recognized his need for more or different attention and apologized for not being able to provide it in the context of a group. Inviting him to problem-solve a solution, he suggested we practice social skills individually before attempting the group setting again. We left on good terms with his outlook noticeably brighter and me feeling good as well.
We must be fully present and respond to underlying emotional needs to strengthen our adult-child relationships and reflect a child’s inherent goodness. Returning to a child with compassion after an unsuccessful interaction allows him to feel the warmth that comes from a safe emotional connection. Using our adult powers of self-regulation gives a child the opportunity to reflect enhanced control and calmness and the pliability to try again.