It’s so easy to just open our mouths and say the first thing that comes to our minds. Sometimes, we may have even considered what to say and how to say it before we let it out. Either way we may not be totally aware of how the other person receives what we say. We might be oblivious to the fact that we’ve sent the person into a heightened anxiety state or really hurt them with our words or how we said them.
My blogs recently have been all focused on emotional literacy and trying to connect with children and young people in a way that creates the space for recovery that many vulnerable children need. Today I want to talk a little bit more specifically about the words we use – the terminology, and how it might come across to others.
The examples I’m going to use are all things I’ve heard in schools or have said myself with my children. I know we often don’t mean them to create stress and certainly we don’t imagine that it might actually hinder a child from learning, but the more aware we can be and the more considered we are with our words, the easier it will be for children and young people to feel safe and calm in our presence.
So, what kind of things am I talking about?
We’re getting to the end of term and for many children transition to the next years’ class can be a very difficult time. We know this, and we try to make it as smooth as possible but the pressure to grow up can be immense for children who are terrified of the future.
One of our trainers was telling me about her boys who are in Primary and are moving classes in September and the staff are trying to help them anticipate that change. However, some of the words they are using only exacerbate the fear – for example being told “you won’t be able to spend as much time playing when you move up”, or “you won’t be able to behave like that when you move up”, doesn’t help a child to feel excited or calm about the next year.
We seem to have an obsession with putting pressure on children at any age…..
- “It is sooo important that you learn to be nice to people otherwise you’ll have no friends”.
- “If you can’t behave more appropriately you’ll never get a job when you leave school”.
- “You must learn to control your temper as you’ll end up in prison”.
- “If you don’t pass your GSCE’s you’ll never get anywhere in life”.
- “It’s your fault that no-one else is learning. If everyone else fails it’s your fault”.
These are all statements I’ve heard. I know why we say them but, as always, the underlying assumption is that the child or young person can change their behaviour if only the right incentive were in place. “If only they understood what damage they are doing to their future, they won’t be able to behave like that in the ‘real’ world”.
Recently a 17-year-old vulnerable young person that I know had a melt down in college and began swearing at others and locked herself in a room. Later one of the staff members asked me “how do we get her to understand that’s not the right way to behave?”.
SHE KNOWS THAT. She knows it’s not great to swear at people and to be aggressive and she certainly knows that it is jeopardising her future. It’s like telling an obese person that they are overweight – they know that.
What is helpful is to use words that connect with the other persons emotions and their confusion. Even though this 17-year-old above knows how she behaves isn’t great she can’t manage her emotions in her state of anxiety. She needs empathetic responses, ways to regulate and strategies to help her manage this situation better in the future. What she doesn’t need is more pressure to say that if she doesn’t manage her behaviour she will be in trouble in the future (even though it may be true).
The real mindset change that helps is to understand that whatever we do as a sanction after an event WILL NOT change the behaviour of a child or young person who can’t manage their emotions. They are reacting to their environment from the survival part of the brain. Helping them to regulate is the most important thing to do at that time. We must start to understand that behaviour modification will not work but relieving anxiety will. Once we can do that for a child they can behave in a different way. When they feel safe and calm they can ask for help or manage their own reactions to others in a way that makes them easier to be around.
For this coming week…..
- Notice what others say and how it makes you feel.
- Does it make you feel better about yourself or worse?
- Does it make you feel more able to manage your reactions or less able?
- Find words that build children’s self-esteem and gives them permission to work through their emotions in a safe way.