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Be Aware of Children Subtle Message

In encounters with children, it is wise to be on the alert to catch the signals of interest, resistance, or fear they send out.

In the situation with Rita when I had been sensitive to her needs, I noticed the subtle message that accompanied her crying. When her brother and sister were standing outside the door of her room, she gave me the clear message she didn’t want them watching her cry. When they asked, “What’s wrong?” she not only refused to answer, but also kept her back to them and stiffened her body. I interpreted these gestures as a need to defend herself from their curiosity.

In the discussion with Rita’s father about staying overnight, I’m sure there were messages I could have noticed, not the least of which was her open denial of bedwetting, which expressed a clear need to defend her self-esteem. As she grew angrier in her denial, I could have noted she felt very much endangered. If I had looked closely at her face, I probably would have seen tautness of skin because of her tight, angry muscles. I’m sure she was showing a number of signs that indicated she felt under attack and desperately needed to defend herself.

Adults give off characteristic signs, for example, of boredom or irritation, such as finger drumming or looking at a watch. But with children, signs of boredom are often more subtle, for instance, eyes that slowly drift away or don’t seem to be looking at anything.

Learning to notice signs we are losing a child’s attention becomes easier with practice. Once aware of children’s boredom, we can shift our approach to something that might rekindle their curiosity and involvement. Such a shift of topic or pace, sometimes with humor, calls forth our own creativity.

It is a special kill to realize when we have caught the interest of a particular child. Here, I remember Alice especially, a slim dark haired first grader with pale complexion and big brown eyes, who often seemed to be staring off into space. Alice’s parents had recently divorced, both had remarried, and Alice was being moved continually between both families. At the school, we were never sure where Alice was living-physically or psychologically. On Monday mornings especially , she might be physically present in class but mentally unresponsive.

When it came to tutoring her in reading, she wasn’t present to the task. In fact, she and I often didn’t seem to be in the same world. In trying to find a way Alice and I could work effectively together in reading, I realized I first had to find a way to get us involved with each other.

I’m not sure how I discovered what to do, but what I did was introduce one topic after another, meanwhile carefully watching her face and eyes for a flicker of interest that would subtly tell me I had caught her attention. Then I’d further develop that topic to the point where Alice was alert, responsive, and connected enough with the present moment to shift to the task of reading. It was the only way her energy could be made available for the tutorial work.

Sometimes my storytelling was exaggerated in order to catch Alice’s interest. My motivation was to captivate her, not particularly to relay factual information. I used humor, colorful details, anything I thought might draw a nibble of interest from a six-year-old girl.

I don’t know how I learned to watch for subtle messages from Alice, but it was helpful that I did. This knowledge continues to be useful to me in relationships of all kinds.

The relationship that grew between Alice and me, and her increasing ability to read developed self-esteem in both of us.

Self-Esteem Principle: When you show low self-esteemers you care enough to watch for their subtle messages, it builds their self-esteem.

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