When families live through difficult times, be they natural disasters like hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, floods, or family tragedies such as car accidents or the sudden death of a loved one, there are many different ways to respond. In my last editorial, I encouraged parents to allow their children to express their feelings, and especially to find and shed their tears.
But what happens when a child does not seem to be affected by the situation? It might be tempting to think (or hope?) that they have not really been affected. That they are “resilient” and are just “bouncing back.” This, however, is rarely the case. It is, in effect, wishful thinking.
The human brain is amazing and it is quite dedicated to ensuring our survival. So in challenging situations it is very normal for the brain to block out an emotional reaction in order to allow us to cope. It allows us to maintain a sense of calm and focus, when the world around us is spinning. We orchestrate a quick exit from the place of danger. We drive long hours to find safety. We hardly sleep or eat and don’t feel the need to do either. This is the brain helping us focus on the essentials. Emotions, therefore, take a back seat.
This happens to us and it can happen to children as well. When the situation is overwhelming, children, too, can “shut down” or shut off emotional reactions. They may become very quiet. If we ask them if they are okay, they often reply that they are fine. They may continue to play with other children – even laugh and look happy. But underneath the emotions are still there, especially alarm and frustration.
Emotions that have been evoked by a traumatic situation eventually have to surface so that they can be processed. For some children this may be weeks or even months after the event. When these emotions surface, everyone is caught off guard – children and parents alike. And, unfortunately, the link with the larger event is often not made. The child may start to have nightmares, temper tantrums, fits of aggressive behaviour, and/or display irritating behaviours such as whining, clinging, or being terribly bossy – all of which may seem to come “out of the blue” or be totally out of line with the environmental trigger.
When this happens, the adults, who themselves are probably dealing with their own delayed emotions, will try to manage the behaviour as best they can. In a day and age when most behaviour management is actually symptom management, the adults will try a variety of interventions: reasoning, using “time out,” giving consequences, giving rewards for good behaviour, and so on. But when behaviours are emotionally driven (and they are more often than we would want to admit), these interventions usually backfire and the behaviours intensify.
What can parents do? First of all, try to remember that traumatic events are not benign and will need to be dealt with for a long time after the event is over. There is nothing wrong with your child, or with your parenting, if he or she is experiencing a delayed reaction. Often this allows the adults to process the situation themselves before having to deal with their child’s reaction. In fact, some children seem to intuitively know when it is “their turn.” Of course, from the adult perspective, we just want this to go away and for everything to get back to the way it was before. Unfortunately, this is another reality that must be grieved. (I recommend that adults watch a lot of sad movies, to give themselves the space to grieve all that they cannot change.)
When dealing with these challenging behaviours, our most important goal should be to provide our children with a safe place to express their emotions. Of course, we may need to impose order by separating the children if one is hurting the other, letting others in the environment know that we are aware that the behaviour is “inappropriate,” and generally managing the situation so the child does not get into more trouble.
It may not be easy, in the moment, to provide the emotional support the child needs, but it is essential that we find time later to help the child process their emotions. And often later is better, because both the adult and child have a chance to distance themselves from the immediate circumstances.
Once it occurs to us that the child’s tantrums, aggression, or bossiness may actually stem from a delayed reaction to this past event, then it may be easier for us to be more empathetic even if they have behaved “badly.” (Ironically, we seem to find it easier to “excuse” our friend’s insensitive behaviour because we know they are going through a messy divorce than to give grace to our children who are experiencing a similar challenge in their life.) This time of connection with our child is an opportunity to focus on their emotions. We must take care not to use it as an opportunity to correct their behaviour. That can be done at a later time.
There are two quite basic emotions that are most likely to be experienced by children in these circumstances: alarm and frustration. Alarm is a response to facing any kind of separation and frustration is about not being able to “make things work.” If a child is reluctant to talk about the event, it is okay to talk about the emotions in a general way, or even in relation to the specific event that triggered it.
It is best not to ask the child what they were feeling or why they were feeling that way. Children are usually not aware of where the emotion is coming from, but just that it exists in them. We have to use our own intuition and share what we think in a gentle, non-judgmental way, ultimately leading the child to making sense of their experience.
For example: you sense that your child is very frustrated by not being able to go back home or sleeping in a strange bed, etc. This frustration is being expressed through hitting a sibling who has taken one of her toys. Later that day, you could come along-side the experience of frustration by saying, “That was SO frustrating for you when Mary took your doll.” Your tone needs to match the emotion the child was feeling. In this interaction, the point is to acknowledge the emotion, not to talk about the behaviour (very hard to do, but very necessary if we want to get beyond the explosions). “Sisters can be SO irritating!” With even this little amount of prompting the child is likely to agree and tell you how much the sister is disliked. (Again, this is not the time to talk about the importance of sibling relationships).
What we want to do is to gently bring up the idea that “things have not been going well lately, lots of things are not working out the way we thought.” Without speaking about the larger event, the message being given to the child is that we understand there is a LOT to be frustrated about. Rather than focusing on and trying to fix an “irritating sister” we are focusing on a “well” that is full of foul frustration and helping our child to process those intense feelings.
And the best way for these deep emotions to be dealt with is through tears. For some children, before they can find their tears, they need to be given permission to express their frustration. Be prepared for a lot of ranting about everyone and everything. Allow the rant to happen because once they can put some words to “mad,” then we can gently lead them to “sad.” Sad is where adaptation happens. Sad allows emotion to move through so it does not stay underground.
To move mad to sad, we must acknowledge the frustration, “There is so much that is JUST NOT working! Wow, that’s a lot to have to put up with! I’m so sorry that this has happened.” As we put a hint of sadness in our voice, this will often be enough to prime the sea of tears that the child will need to cry in order to adapt to a world that is not cooperating.
We can guide children through a similar process around alarm. Key phrases are, “That was scary for you,” and “You didn’t know what was going to happen next.” Once again, in this interaction we are going to comfort and also acknowledge the emotion, no matter what the reason for it. There was so much that was scary and so little time to process it.
If a child has nightmares or sees monsters under the bed, we need to come along-side the alarm. Trying to deal with an emotional problem using reason really doesn’t work very well. Ask anyone who has tried to get rid of the monsters under the bed!
In summary, emotions are essential to our well-being and once evoked, need to be expressed. For children who have lived through difficult times, some will need time to process. If their reaction is “too good to be true,” it just means that these emotions will be expressed later.
Our challenge as the adults in their lives is to find a way to allow for this expression without consequences. We must overlook some of the symptom behaviours to get to the heart of the matter. Our children need to know that we are there for them and that we understand that their behaviour is just a way of communicating that something is not working for them. We need to hold them close as so that they can express these emotions and thus come to a place of rest.