Children who’ve experienced a difficult start in life have so many different ways of hiding from their pain. They may be the clown of the class, the angry child, the quiet and well-behaved girl in the back, the life and soul of the party or the one who runs and hides. Of course children do all these things for lots of other reasons too (doesn’t mean they have an insecure attachment if they do). However, we know that one of the impacts of that deep feeling of shame is the inability to face up to what they may have done.
Shame keeps us in our own stuff. Children when they are told off, or even when they perceive they will be told off, the overwhelming feeling of shame takes over and they cannot control the way they may react. Another factor that plays a part is the fact that a sense of powerlessness from early trauma can lead to a need to control, particularly when stressed. Coupled together these two powerful urges – to control and the overwhelming sense of shame can cause a child to run and hide.
“I was so embarrassed I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me”. That expression is one we use as adults to express that intense feeling of embarrassment when we’ve done something publically that we find humiliating. For children it’s even more than that. We know that however embarrassing something may be we will get over it, people will forget and we will live. For children whose core belief is that they are bad, then that feeling of intense shame does not go away so soon. It causes them at times to have to run and hide, to feel safe, to be in control and to shut the world out.
There have been many times with my children when their running and hiding has seemed a complete overreaction to the situation. When they are not being told off but may think they are about to be. Or sometimes it’s if they hurt someone else but instead of feeling guilt they feel those huge feelings of shame that they are bad as a result of what they’ve done. One of my children in the past has got very angry because they can’t cope with the intense feelings and lashed out at others. These reactions are hard for us to understand and to cope with.
In the school context children who run and/or hide as a result of their feelings of shame can be hard to deal with. They may go to the same place as it feels safe or they need to be away from others and in a quiet space. Some children don’t physically run and hide but they dissociate and emotionally shut down. The stress that triggers these responses is the same and the need to run and hide is the same, it just might look different in its expression.
So how can we help children with their tendency to run and hide, however that might look?
Do some detective work. What are the triggers that cause the child to respond in this way? Look at the patterns, the people involved, the timings, what may be happening at home. Take notice of the signs in the child of stress before they run – there will be some; rocking on their chair, fidgeting, irritating other children, demanding attention etc.
Create a safe place for them to go. When a child needs to run and hide they need somewhere safe to do that. A small tent, a table cloth covering a specific table, a designated room somewhere. If you create the place they are less likely to disappear.
Come down to where they are and meet them there. If they will go to a designated place make sure their key adult can meet them there and contain their feelings. This may mean getting under the table or in the tent to sit with the child if they will let you. When children feel so stressed that they need to run and hide they will need a trusted adult to regulate them.
Allow them to express themselves. When we try to shut down children’s strong emotions they have no option but to run and hide in this way. Whilst I appreciate how difficult this is to do in a school setting, when children are angry, frustrated or stressed we need to find ways to let them express that in their attitudes and feelings so that they don’t communicate with their behaviour.
Above all else children and young people need to know they are safe, they are accepted and they are cared for. Giving them time and space can help with this but also being open and talking to them about why they are feeling and that it’s ok to want to hide. All the shame based behaviours come back to the same thing – helping the child to feel safe and calm so that they can learn and develop as they should.
I would love to hear any comments on the impact of shame that you may see in your schools and/or homes. Contact us by email [email protected] or through social media twitter – @BraveheartEdu, Facebook – BraveHeart Education.