Connect Yourself with Their Strong Emotions

The simplest and most natural way to connect with children in emotionally-laden situations is to share a story of some similar embarrassment or anxiety you went through.

As I have said many times already, I used to connect with strong feelings in my students and clients by telling stories of my children or of my own childhood. It was important to my students to have some sense of how I or my children had struggled through embarrassment or anxiety, and some idea of how my story might apply to them. Not least among the messages was that if other children had survived their embarrassments, so could they.

For example, many children dread the kinds of schools games and activities where teams get chosen: two team leaders, usually the best in the class, get to choose their team members one at a time. Wanda had often talked about how awful it felt to be standing there while sides were being chosen and she knew nobody wanted her because she wasn’t very good, whether it was in soccer, softball, or spelling.

Wanda always had trouble spelling. She often spelled words phonetically, rather than according to the dictionary. In spelling contests in class, she was often nearly the last, if not the last, to be chosen. To Wanda it seemed that the class leaders were sincerely talking about her as they chose teams, saying, “You take her, I don’t want her,” as she stood there embarrassedly waiting to see to which team she would belong.

Since spelling contests still seem to be a perennial part of school experience and since many of the students I worked with in learning disabilities had major problems with spelling, they could usually identify themselves with Wanda’s embarrassment and be able then to talk about their own.

They often asked me if Wanda ever got to be a good speller. I’d say truthfully, “No, but she did get better, and she uses an dictionary a lot when she writes.” Sometimes this would lead to an opportunity to teach them how to use a dictionary.

Wanda also had a very great fear of getting hurt physically. The fear of being hit by a ball kept her from becoming a very good player in sports. Again, many learning-disabled children with whom I worked had perceptual problems and could not accurately judge where a ball would come; they shared Wanda’s fear of getting hit and usually had problems with not being good players. So Wanda’s embarrassment in not being chosen for teams and in thinking of herself as an undesirable and poor player was something they could identify with and then talk about.

Like Wanda, I could admit remembering what it felt like to be left out on teams, and how my anxiety and embarrassment grew as I waited and waited to see myself not being chosen and feeling undesirable.

The point here is not that the children and I became comrades in mutual misery, but that we talked about an emotionally-laden problem we shared and could see it was probably shared by many people. From that perspective, our problem and the emotions it churned up in us didn’t seem quite so awesome and overwhelming.

They could identify my children’s situation as being similar to theirs. They could also identify with the respect and valuing I still felt toward my daughters, and so not feel overly diminished themselves. Somehow, I could continue to respect and esteem them even if they didn’t appear very competent.

Another realization I hoped would occur to them was may be now they could acknowledge their own ability to empathize with other people and begin to see how helpful empathy was in building relationships and a sense of mutual self-esteem.

Self-Esteem Principle: Children with low self-esteem are constantly afraid they will lose even more self-esteem in embarrassing situations. This belief may be counterbalanced by the perspective of time and the example of other children’s experiences.

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