Like some 60 million other kids in Canada and the USA, two of my youngest grandsons are about to go back to school. I find myself thinking about their emotional health and well-being. One of the grandsons doesn’t admit to his wounds very easily – physically or emotionally. He tends to withdraw into a sullen mood when hurting (very much like his grandfather). The social normality of going to school camouflages its emotional enormity.
School is stressful for most kids – even if they enjoy it and can’t wait to go. The reason for this is simple: stress is caused by facing separation of one kind or another. Like all mammals, we are dependent upon togetherness to survive, so it follows that facing separation is what threatens us to our very core. Since togetherness can be experienced in many ways – being with, being like, being on the same side, being part of, mattering to, feeling loved by, or even being known and understood – the ways of facing separation are equally varied. And for the most part they remain hidden from view, unless one knows how and to whom (or to what) a child is attached.
Going to school – no matter how much a child loves school – will involve facing separation from his or her working attachments. If one is attached to grades (as I was), school can be a never-ending source of alarm. School is even more stressful if the primary reason for going to school is to be with one’s friends. If one is attached to one’s peers (as most of my boyhood friends were), any sense of closeness is accompanied by an increased apprehension of the separation that can ensue, and ultimately does. And the more important one’s peers are to a child, the more stressful the peer interaction becomes and the deeper the wounding. So school, for all of these reasons and more, is stressful.
I find myself, like millions of other parents, hoping that the sensitivities of our children (and grandchildren) will not be too overwhelmed by what awaits them in the corridors, in the classroom, or in the school-yard. However, for many it will be overwhelming and there is little we can do about that. But I know something now that I didn’t know as a beginning parent. I now understand that what happens at school does not have to put their emotional health and well-being at risk. What happens AFTER school is key.
Let me explain.
The most amazing and paradoxical thing about stress is that the more we are subjected to it, the less we actually feel it, or feel anything for that matter. Our brains have evolved the most remarkable capacity to tune out our feelings when needing to perform in stressful or wounding situations. If school isn’t one of the most wounding or stressful scenarios in our society, one would be hard-pressed to figure out what was – except for a troubled home, of course.
Unfortunately our children are showing the increasing impact of this stress, along with the corresponding loss of feeling. All the indicators of stress are up – aggression, boredom, attention problems, bullying, anxiety, agitation, adrenalin-seeking, depression, suicide, and suicidal thoughts.
The irony is that this epidemic loss of feeling is largely going unnoticed and unrecognized. When children lose their feelings, they perform better in stressful and wounding situations. When children lose their feelings, they seem less troubled, less upset, less concerned, less impacted. When children lose their feelings, they can seem to most adults, experts included, that they are actually doing better.
The terrible truth of the matter is that this loss of feeling is at the very root of the troubles our children are having (and in turn, the troubles we are having with them). Developmental science has come to understand that feelings are essential to emotional health and well-being, to emotional maturation, to fulfilling togetherness, to becoming fully human and humane. Feelings are the heart of the matter, so to speak. We can only afford to lose our feelings for a relatively short period of time: when performance becomes more important than growth, when ‘doing’ becomes more important than ‘being’, when the conditions for the realization of potential need to be sacrificed for the work of the moment.
So what is the answer to this dilemma in which the children of today are spending a good portion of their day with their brains actively defending against feeling? The answer, in short, is not so much what happens IN school but what happens AFTER school! The very feelings that have been tuned out when under duress are meant to bounce back when the threat is over and the child feels safe. But this has to happen in a timely way, or the brain loses the ability to properly interpret the feelings and link them to the triggering events.
In other words, school children desperately need an end-of-the-school-day-experience where their feelings can bounce back. They need a safe place where emotions can thaw out, where emotional armour can be doffed, where their feelings can catch up with them, where the impact of stress can be reversed. This bounce-back experience is pivotal … and the sooner it happens after being shoehorned into a wounding environment, the better.
Safety is key. There are two natural oases of safety for children. A child feels safe when feeling close to someone to whom they are deeply attached. A child also feels safe when fully engaged in an emotional playground; this can be a piece of music, a favourite story, a solitary space, some pretend play, or even creating a piece of art. Screen play doesn’t serve as an emotional playground as it is too stimulating and outcome based to serve the emotions. My favourite emotional playground as a child was a swing my father built me. I recently realized that I have never grown out of this emotional playground nor my need for it; rarely does a summer day end that doesn’t have me on a swing in wait for my feelings to catch up with me. Unfortunately the end-of-the-day rituals and customs that enabled emotional recovery are fast disappearing in our society.
If, upon collecting our child after school, they should burst into tears and seemingly vomit their feelings all over us, we should take some comfort in the fact that all is right with their emotional recovery process. It is a good thing that their feelings are inhibited during school so that they can perform in a wounding environment and not become dysfunctional because of hurt feelings. It is a wonderful thing that our child experiences us as a safe space for their feelings to catch up with them. And it is pivotal to their emotional health that feelings are recovered so that they can do their work of cultivating resilience and growing our child up. This is all as it should be, emotionally speaking; we don’t need to know the details – about what happened in school or with their school-mates – for emotional recovery to happen.
So as our children go back to school, let us resolve to provide for them an après school experience where their feelings can catch up with them. There could be no better investment in their emotional health and well-being.