When children come to you in a state of embarrassment or anxiety, don’t confront them with their feelings immediately. It’s better to spend time together in a gentle way until they regain their sense of self. Only when a climate of loving and caring has been clearly established are they usually ready to begin facing their strong emotions.
Sometimes embarrassment doesn’t really need to be talked about directly because children deal with and work through it in their own internal way. In this case, all you have to do is provide the caring and supportive atmosphere in which that can happen.
As I mentioned before, Tommy, either because of his inability to express himself adequately in the classroom or because of his innate shyness and discomfort at being the center of attention when asked to respond in class, would sometimes come to a tutoring-therapy session distraught, distracted, out of sorts, and having lost his sense of self.
At times like these, Tommy would ask if we could do something outside. He wanted to be in a place where he felt comfortable and could enjoy a special sense of harmony with nature. There he would take the time to work through his strong feelings and regain his sense of self.
If the weather was bad, he might deal with his anxiety by asking if we could begin our session with picture drawing. In the creative expression of himself, he could regain the equilibrium that allowed him to approach the rest of our tutoring time with energy and confidence.
Sometimes, after spending time outside or drawing pictures, Tommy would talk about whatever had upset or embarrassed him. He’d explain the situation in which it had occurred, ask me what I thought, tell me how mad he had been or what he’d like to do to the people who made him angry or hurt his feelings. At other times he seemed to handle the strong feelings internally, while he searched for rocks outside or drew pictures in the serenity of the tutoring room.
He knew he was free to talk about his strong feelings, but he also knew he didn’t have to. And he knew I would respect his privacy. Early on we had established his right to talk to me or not about what was bothering him. Once when we had come inside from gathering rocks and Tonny immediately went to his books to begin work, I asked solicitously if something had been bothering him and, if so, did he want to talk about it.
Tommy confronted me very gently but very directly, “Do I have to talk about it?”
I said, “No, Tommy. You never have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about with me. I understand. Sometimes I feel that way, too.”
So I learned not to ask Tommy, and Tommy learned that it was okay not to tell me if he didn’t want to, but I would be a receptive listener if he needed one.
Children will often suggest a way you can help them deal with strong feelings. I can remember sitting on the steps next to Miranda with my arm around her while she gazed off gloomily into space. I knew something was bothering her, said so, and told her I was sorry she wasn’t happy. A few minutes later she asked me if I would take her on my lap and rock her as I used to when she was a little girl. As I held her, we talked about how she used to like being rocked, and she shared some of the memories she had of it. We never did talk about what had been bothering her that day. Growing peaceful with the physical closeness and memories of happy times seemed to be enough.
There have been many times when, particularly as a parent, I have been impatient about wanting to know what was bothering my children. And when they told me they didn’t want to talk about it, I kept asking, pushing, wanting to know. My insistence sometimes caused more distress than comfort, and at certain times we ended up, my daughter and I, in a tug-of-war over the situation, instead of joining sides and facing the problem together.
In demanding to have their feelings aired with me, I created an additional problem with my daughters: I was not respecting their right to their own privacy. And when I didn’t esteem their right to choose their own way of dealing with their strong emotions, it must have appeared I didn’t esteem them either.
Generous as my wish was to help them face whatever caused their embarrassment, I first had to esteem their right to choose for themselves how they wanted to deal with their feelings and what, if anything, they wanted to share with me.
Self-Esteem Principle: To maintain self-esteem in times of strong feelings, adults need to help children build patterns of response to strong feelings which increase the probability of a successful outcome.