An eight-year-old sits down at the dinner table, and as she passes the lasagna says, 'Mommy, I need to talk to you about something. When you told me I had to turn off my iPad to do a Zoom meeting for school, it made me quite angry and frustrated because I was concentrating very hard on a new house I was building with my friends. We were collaborating, connecting, and having a lot of fun. And it made me feel like you didn’t care about what is important to me when you told me to ‘get off.’'
Sound familiar? Probably not.
Likely no, or very few, parents have ever heard their school-aged child be able to express themselves in such a manner. Most parents experience their eight-year-old expressing their unhappy feelings by crying, pouting, yelling, stomping, slamming, or some other unhappy behavior. The former example, while pleasant, is not a reasonable expectation of how an eight-year-old will handle their upset feelings. Because children often communicate their feelings through their behavior, out of the two examples, the latter is the most reasonable expectation given the age, development, and maturity of an eight-year-old. And with the unprecedented school year ahead, children will likely have many emotions to express.
No matter how your child’s school is structuring the upcoming school year (in-person, remote, or a combination), it will likely present its own set of challenges and inherent losses. Adding to that, children will likely have less chances to be with their friends or attend many favorite events like sports, birthday parties, dances, and more. Because of this, children will be coping with many complicated and troubling emotions like frustration, sadness, feeling overwhelmed, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and everything in between. So as the academic year gets underway, and when school presents its challenges, what kinds of behaviors should parents expect? And what is the best way to help their children through the upcoming school year?
Most young children are not yet able to verbally express how they are feeling as accurately as the fictional eight-year old 'quoted' above. Depending on their age, some children may have more coping skills than, say, a toddler, but even for older children there is a limit to what they can process and manage. It’s important to understand that, like adults, children do not want to have unhappy feelings and their behavior may be a way of asking for help. For example, parents may come to learn that the reason why their teen gave them ’attitude’ was not because of anything her parents did, but because the teen was frustrated that she couldn’t get a hold of her teacher to ask an important question about an assignment. A sympathetic response from parents is often helpful and might be something like this:
‘You seem irritated. I noticed you were working on an assignment. Is everything okay?’
If your teen opens up and explains what is happening, parents can take this cue and help their teen to learn her teacher’s office hours for example.
Another example may be a seven-year-old who cries when it’s time to put on their mask. Parents could ask:
‘I see you are sad. Can you tell me what is making you sad?’