I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Kim Barthel and came away with so many thoughts and ideas it was hard to know where to begin. However, the number one theme she focused on was compassion and that seems like a good place to begin.
The reason it is a good place to begin is because compassion enables us to see the real person. I was reminded of this through a conversation I had with another person following the presentation. They were talking to me about the fact the child they were working with is having a difficult time at school and they were asking for a Psych-Ed assessment to be done. Through the conversation, I realized the child had experienced a lot of change and transitions recently. As a result, I recommended that they focus on making the child feel safe and loved and wait on the Psy-Ed assessment for now. It is utterly amazing to me how stress and anxiety can literally change a person. I have seen student after student whose behaviour completely changes when they experience a large change or trauma in their life. While we no longer should say love is enough, we should say love goes a long ways toward solving problems.
Why does love and compassion make such a difference? It starts with an understanding of stress and anxiety. We know stress and anxiety is a necessary part of our lives. Stress motivates us and anxiety keeps us safe. However, too much of stress or anxiety will overwhelm us and stop us from thinking clearly. As a result, we lose the ability to problem solve. Children in particular are more susceptible to this than adults. The number one diagnosis of children today is generalized anxiety disorder recently passing ADHD. Why is that? Anxiety comes from high cortisol levels, a chemical our body produces when presented with a perceived danger. The behaviour typically seen will be fight, flight or freeze. A child may have an angry outburst or temper tantrum, get stubborn, say mean things meant to hurt, get physically aggressive and cause damage to property. A child may also avoid, deny, always say everything is fine, constantly try to fix everything or agree with everything, run away, or focus on something. However, the child may also daydream, refuse to do any work, obsess on something, become very quiet, cry, or just stare at something. While these behaviours can be linked to several different reasons, the conversation becomes so important. Any person, not just a child, will not naturally think to ask for help when they are overwhelmed with anxiety. However, when we recognize this behaviour as a communication for help, we can literally become a lifesaver.
How do we do that? It starts with compassion. We must first realize children communicate differently than adults due to the difference in brain development. Children are more attuned to reading faces than adults. The first form of communication a baby develops is through reading its mother’s face. Elementary children, in particular, still use facial expression as a primary means of communication with adults and other children. The stare of over three seconds is considered to be the most threatening facial expression we have. As a teacher, I am very cognizant of the fact that when I am speaking to a child, I will not tell them to look at me and then proceed to stare and talk. If the child doesn’t want to look at me, I give them that option, but they must respond in some way whether by voice or body language. The look of compassion has several aspects. It is the head tilting to the right; chin and cheekbones slightly elevated; a lower, quieter deliberate voice; and hold the presence. Holding the presence is such a key point. We simply wait. Not move, don’t speak, don’t get distracted, simply communicate “I am here for you.” I joke that that I wish I could get through a day without a child crying on me, but when they know you are there for them, that anxiety release is something to behold. What is so cool about compassion, though, it actually releases anxiety for both you and the child. A stressed adult creates a stressed child. A calm adult creates a calm child.
So the next time you feel like you are about to get into a shouting match with your child again, stop, take a deep breath, get yourself calm, and focus on how can you help your child through their challenge. When they realize you do still love them no matter what they have done, you are laying the groundwork to be able to truly help them. You will not be disappointed with the results.