Parents and Teachers frequently ask me what they can do to help their child or students. We know that like adults, children can have bad days. Some more frequently than others. As we communicate with our children, we can try to make the hard days a little easier when we keep just 5 easy topics in mind.
Like adults, many kids have difficulties with having people too close to them. The amount of space may vary from person to person but arms length is usually a good starting point. Proximity can also include if we choose to stand directly in front of them. If a child is more elevated (i.e. feeling more anxious, anger, sadness, frustration, etc.) then I would recommend pivoting yourself to be off on their side. The reason being is so they have a route that's not through you if they are not ready to talk. When I was working with students in the school system, I would frequently start a conversation with them while they were sitting and I would be the side of their desk or seat. This allowed them the option to converse with me. Giving them a sense of control, whenever possible, allows the child to feel more at ease.
It's very common for adults to feel the need to talk over the child. While we might be able to have a louder voice, the person with the highest volume may not be "winning." By lowering our voice, we encourage our children to lower theirs because they have to hear us. A lower volume is a sign that everyone is safe and secure. Lowering our voice reminds models what they should be doing. Children look to us in imagining what will happen next. They might be nervous that something negative is about to happen, or they could be so worried about the consequences that they can't think in the present moment. When we have a relaxed speaking voice, our kids are more likely to mimic the same. If not, you can gently remind them of the expectation (i.e."we can talk when you have a softer talking voice.")
When someone is more upset and they are starting to escalate, we tend to speak at them instead of to them. We use large words and a lot of words. However, when someone is upset, the brain doesn't focus as well on holding and retaining memory. Similarly, we can't communicate as thoughtfully or clearly. Sticking to easy and short phrases can be extremely useful in this case. It allows our children to focus better on the words that we do use. Instead of saying something like "next time, ignore any erroneous details and focus all of your attention on me" we can try saying "please watch me for your next step." The shorter and direct way of providing instructions or giving our youth feedback is easier for them to comprehend.
Who doesn't love to have an option or two?! I certainly do and kids love to too. They are given instructions all day at home and in school. Providing a child with an opportunity to make a choice of their own can prove to be good for their confidence, your relationship, and their future abilities for decision making. Please be mindful that they could pick either option so only give options that you're okay with them choosing. "Betty, do you want to do your history or math first?" Either answer is fine with you because they are working in the direction you want them to go but they feel they have a choice in the matter. "Alex, which would you rather do first? Clean up the room or make an apology?" This tactic can work at home and inside the classroom.
Like us, children are often striving for perfection. They want to bring home the A+ paper and earn the extra credit on it. But when reality doesn't match expectations, it can lead to many consequences. I've seen so many students become physically and emotionally upset because they haven't performed the way that they and others want them to. While we may not all be able to do our absolute best 100% of the time, we can praise our youth for trying. If they had a shorter tantrum today then yesterday, that's progress. If they earned a B+ on a paper when it's usually a B- then that's progress. The more we encourage them so consider their strengths and progress, the less likely they are going to become upset because they can regulate their own highs and lows.
*Although there are many areas that we can focus on for behavior and emotional management and regulation, I have chosen to highlight these five main areas today. In future weeks I will return to this topic and focus on other ways in which we can help our youth. Stay tuned and stay well.
Megan Bowling, M.A., LMFT
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