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?’
They may learn that their child doesn’t like the way his glasses fog up and can then find a different mask that better alleviates the issue.
Keeping a tab on the context surrounding the behavior, such as missing friends, stress over school work, and the like, will help parents address their child’s needs. But for some children, the emotions may become overwhelming and parents may notice that their child is more irritable, overly anxious, or even depressed. How can parents help their children navigate these emotions?
Children look to their parents for many things - how to brush their teeth, how to clean their room, how to hit a baseball, but they also look to their parents on how to express and manage their emotions. Through our decades long work with children and families, we know that children learn most from modeling, which is learning by observing other people, most often their parents, and then imitating that behavior. Parents and caregivers are the most impactful source of modeling. Children look to their parents on how to manage all their emotions from stress and anxiety to happiness and excitement.
But because children’s learning is experiential, how parents respond to their child’s unpleasant behavior in the moment is how children learn to manage their emotions. For example, if a parent responds irritably to a fifth grader who is slamming doors because he can't find his notebook, the parent’s irritable response will only strengthen or extend the child’s anxieties, which are the emotions that are driving the slamming doors. But if a parent is able to respond with kindness and understanding, the next time their child can’t find something, their child will have a model and knowledge on how to handle anxiety with calm and patience. An example may sound something like:
‘I see you are mad because you can’t find your notebook. It is super frustrating when you can’t find things, but I’m here to help. Can you remember the last place you had it?’
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love, “If adults take a friendly, positive, and nonjudgmental approach to helping their children explore their conflicting feelings, children will feel cared for, understood, and relieved.”*
Another important step that parents can take to help their child combat troubling emotions is by supporting their child’s positive needs, or things that bring them joy and happiness. This could be playing catch in the yard, taking a walk together outside, baking cookies, organizing a Minecraft play date, or watching a favorite movie together. These kinds of activities will strengthen your child’s self-esteem aiding in their ability to manage and cope when things don’t go their way.
“One strategy we have found effective is to invite him to be in the same room with you when he is doing his homework, so that he will have an adult available to answer questions as they arise. Do your very best to be positive and never negative when answering his questions. The best way to discover that learning can be fun is to share the problem-solving effort with someone who is positive and enthusiastic. If you can be that person for your son, or you can find a tutor who offers these qualities, your son’s natural curiosity will be stimulated and he will begin to get more enjoyment from his studies.”**
This school year is sure to be unlike any other and as a result, parents and children may experience a whole host of issues. But by staying positive, addressing children’s feelings, helping them understand their emotions, providing kindness and understanding, and supporting their positive needs, children will be able to better manage what the school year brings and gain a stronger skill set to cope when times are challenging or difficult.
“Parents who understand the reasons for their child’s seemingly unprovoked outbursts will be better equipped to avoid criticizing or punishing [their child]. By responding sympathetically, they will make a positive contribution to their child’s development of a more stable inner well-being, thereby helping the child become less vulnerable when things go badly in the future.”*
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999
** Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services, 2012