Emily McCrea is the Director of the Downtown Community School and collaborates with CITY Center for Collaborative Learning’s work in Trauma Informed Practice. Recipient of the 2017 Cecilia Avalos Parent Education Award, Emily’s mentors are: Bev Bos, Lori Petro, Robin Grille. Her strongest influences include the works of: Eckhart Tolle, Alfie Kohn, Shefali Tsabary, Daniel Siegel, Bruce Perry and Gabor Mate.
Behavior is the communication of an unmet need.
When 8 year old Wolfie, returns to her mom’s house after a weekend at her dad’s house, she is anxious. She cries uncontrollably for her dad. She demands for her mom to explain “Why?” “Why can’t I be with my dad? Why did he leave?” and “Does he still love me?” After a few minutes of actively listening and verbally acknowledging Wolfie’s feelings, her mother says, “I hear you babe, you’ve got some big feelings about this.” She notices Wolfie begin to calm. Her arms are wrapped around her mother and she isn’t crying any longer. Her mother checks in, “are you feeling better?” Suddenly Wolfie blurts out, “I want to sleep in your bed!” Wolfie’s mother instantly becomes paralyzed by her daughter’s new desire—it’s taken a lot of tolerance for her to hold space for her child in the midst of her sudden emotional breakdown.
Wolfie co-slept with her mother for the first few years of her life, but for the past few years has been sleeping through the night in her own bed. Has her mother failed her in some way? Did co-sleeping damage her child? Perhaps Wolfie needs discipline or a boundary? The divorce is over, and Wolfie’s dad moved to California a year and a half ago, what can her mother do but explain firmly to her child that this is the new normal; this is what she will have to learn to deal with. All of these frantic and fear based thoughts race through her mother’s head, before she catches herself, and breathes deeply.
Wolfie’s mother remembers that behavior is the communication of an unmet need. She moves from her paralyzed and fear-based state into a calm and attuned space once again. She begins to soften in the face of Wolfie’s big emotion. She is able to identify that underneath Wolfie’s behavior are very real and valid needs for consistency, safety and connection. She pushes past her fears that her child is too needy and giving in will somehow enable her codependency. “Yes, you may sleep in my bed, I know that makes you feel safe,” her mother responds. She believes deeply that by acknowledging her 8.5 year old daughter’s big feelings she is aiding in the development of the skills she wants to instill in her daughter: independence, maturity, grace, understanding, regulation and emotional intelligence.
The effects of divorce and other stressful experiences in early development don’t just evaporate with time. Children are not inherently resilient. We are not born knowing how to navigate stressful experiences, the feelings continue to come up over and over again, often expressed in surprising behavioral strategies. As children grow and understand the world around them, emotional guidance from caregivers is critical. Children simply need us to allow them to go through their process and deserve to have caring adults in their lives that patiently wait for their unique maturity to catch up to experience. After a few months of emotionally processing Wolfie’s big emotions with her (sometimes daily) and saying “yes, you can sleep with me,” 5 out of 7 nights per week, Wolfie is securely back in her own bed. She felt connected to because trust was builtwith her mother. She has learned that she is safe to process the negative emotions and experiences that come up in life.
Children spend every minute trying out new strategies for meeting their needs, and behavior is their main mode of communication. Behavior is a representation of what is going on internally. Behavior is an attempt to meet basic needs that are valid and necessary. Listening to emotions is necessary for children to grow. Feeling heard and validated are the mechanisms of support children need to move through negative emotions and to develop in a healthy way.
We know that fear activates the limbic system: the fight, flight or freeze responses. Young children can’t access higher brain function, or the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for empathy. Their brains are still rapidly developing, disorganized, inconsistent and lack impulse control. Children under 7 years of age generally have newer and inefficient connections to the part of the brain that rules sequential thought. They cannot predict consequences or realize there is another moment besides now. Limited brain structure means they can’t always remember that things will change and that their negative, sometimes unbearable, feelings are not endless. We see behaviors shift when primary relationships are secure and caregivers are skilled at attuning and regulating their own emotions.
Children and adults learn from experience, and all that a person experiences is stored in the body and the mind like an emotional backpack. And since the brain is pattern seeking, our minds constantly assess each and every experience in our emotional backpack looking for evidence to confirm and provide meaning to our stories. Unprocessed or poorly processed experiences become negative stories lurking under the surface waiting to be triggered in the body’s attempt to heal. Caring adults can help children to identify and name their emotions and to uncover the stories that children may be unconsciously telling themselves; this process of mapping allows our fight, flight or freeze responses to regulate and mature. Once regulated, we are able to access a feeling of relief.
After lunch one afternoon, Ryder was sitting on the couch in the library with his friend looking at a book, when the teacher noticed Ryder holding a clenched fist in his friends’ face. The teacher quickly approached Ryder, knelt down to his level, put a hand on his shoulder and said “Hey, friend what’s going on?” Embarrassed, Ryder slid down the couch and burst into tears. The teacher gently picked him up, put him on her lap and checked in again “Hey, buddy what’s happening?” Ryder yelled out, “I want my dad.” The teacher reflects back “You wanted your dad?” “Yes,” Ryder quietly shares. “You are thinking about your dad?” Ryder nods his head. “What would happen if your dad was here with you?” Ryder responds, “I want to ride the streetcar and get ice cream with my dad, I miss him.”
The teacher recognizes the opportunity for the child’s experience to be validated. She asks Ryder if he would like to write a letter to his dad about it and he says “yes.” This validates Ryder’s need to be seen and heard and facilitates the completion of a previous perceived unmet emotional need. As the teacher continues to hold him in her lap she notices that he begins to stop crying, his body language softens, he is making eye contact and there is a happier tone in his voice. The offer of writing a note calms and regulates Ryder.
Now that Ryder is regulated the teacher circles back to the original topic–the clenched fist in the friend’s face– With observation first and curiosity next she asks, “I saw that you put your fist in your friends face. Were you angry?” Ryder promptly responds “yes, he wouldn’t share his book.” What we can gather from this reply is that when Ryder was rejected by his friend his triggered response was to protect himself. This was the observable behavior. What we also know is that Ryder’s dad has been working late many evenings. We can gather that within this moment of perceived rejection he was triggered into feelings of anger and hurt, feelings he’s been carrying about his dad in his emotional backpack. Ryder’s dad is not at fault, and he likely will not be able to change his work schedule anytime soon. What he can do is help Ryder to process and name the emotion of missing someone. By empathizing in this way, he regains connection with his son.
My deepest desire is to support the caring adults that work with and love young children. What a privilege it is to understand the opportunities we are presented day after day as parents and teachers. Yet the responsibility can seem overwhelming when we begin to understand the new research and discover that the way we have been responding to children for decades is flawed and full of error. Some of the research tells us we can actually harm children significantly if we treat them punitively, discipline with shame, dismissal or disapproval.
With a new and informed lens, however, we are quickly faced with the pressure to do better to respond to children with kindness, curiosity, and compassion. While these intentional interactions are ideal they are challenging to put into practice and require skills that many of us have not been taught. You might say, this sounds great, but how do I do it? How do we hold steady during conflict while staying attuned with emotional presence? Children need so much, and emotions are often overlooked. Many of us struggle to accept our own emotions and our culture often hasn’t honored authentic experience.
We are misinformed if we think that listening to children will reward misbehavior. The truth is, many of us struggle to set boundaries: either we are too passive, too controlling or both. Many of us are so uncomfortable with our children’s big and powerful emotions we unconsciously control their behavior to preserve our own peace of mind, because truth be told, we don’t know how to manage our own big emotions. We must engage in the work of re-reading our own emotional backpacks in order to support our children to do the same. We are called to honor the perception of the children we are caring for, to allow them to go through their process as they need to. We offer connection over and over knowing it is enough and what is needed for the child to gain the skills we desire for them. We also understand that connecting with children in this way takes time, patience, and tolerance. And, we need to persist with the knowledge that this approach is fundamental for children to grow into healthy and connected adults.
*Lynette Maya & Zobella Vinik contributed to this article.