When exaggerated adult emotion leaves a child feeling uneasy…

This morning, my husband and I stood on the sidewalk while our 11 year-old boarded his first school bus to a new school. MIDDLE school. 6th grade. We walked him up the street, and we each hugged him tight and and he said, “Alright, here I go! See you at 3:18!”

We stood by a tree, and as he climbed aboard, Dave and I each held a hand high in the air making the ‘I love you’ sign. He glanced back at us and smiled. We knew he felt giddy and proud of himself, alongside the butterflies. “I’m getting big,” he said, last night, admiring his height in the mirror. And…he couldn’t stop pacing and talking and repeating everything for good measure. “I’m feeling anxious and nervous and excited and happy,” he explained.

After the bus drove off, I had a flashback. I remembered something he said about his very first teacher, sweet Miss Peggy, who he met two mornings a week for preschool. For the first few weeks, he would wake up on Tuesdays and Thursdays excited to play with friends for a couple of hours, building, coloring, and playing together. It was a new experience for all of us. His older brother didn’t go to preschool. Not for long anyway. Different needs. During those two hours two mornings a week, I would take my older son to auditory, occupational and vision therapy sessions. At first it seemed to flow… And then… “Mammy,” he said. “Yes honey…” “I don’t like preschool…” “You don’t?” “No,” he said softly, a look of concern on his face. He came in close, and I hugged him.

“Did something happen to give you that feeling?” I asked, after a few moments. “Yah…” he said, “Miss Peggy surprises me.” “She…surprises you?” “Yah,” he said, tearing up, “She surprises me.”

Well, that was an intriguing statement. Sometimes, when our children express things that we don’t initially understand, we can find out what they and we need…by thinking like them. By putting ourselves in our child’s booties.

I discovered, through gentle inquiry for more experiential, the sensory details of what she *looks* like when she’s surprising him, *where* she surprises him and what *sounds* she makes when she surprises him.


As Miss P got more familiar with Ben, she would get down on her knees as he came in the front door and throw her arms out to the side, open her mouth as wide as she could, her eyebrows high, her eyes big with shock, as she audibly *gasped” and…then…froze. A teacher statue of unbridled enthusiasm and…surprise.

But, Ben…found her uber-excitement, big gasp and the frozen stance, well, a little frightening. She was a lovely teacher. And it’s quite likely that many of the children enjoyed her response. Ben, on other hand, was overwhelmed by it.

For Ben, it was the sudden gesture, the shocked look and sharp gasp (after which she’d hold her breath) that scared him.

A little brain science insight goes a long way here. At that tender age, appraisal and emotion are huge factors for trust, a sense of safety and wellbeing in relationship, and so our adult responses are powerful. A child who is overwhelmed by a perceived over-the-top emotional reception may not read it as “teacher is fun, playful and really likes me…” but rather “teacher is cornering me with this big unavoidable reaction that I’m supposed to like but that doesn’t ‘fit’ with me just arriving to the classroom. And I don’t trust it. Her. This. Plus she’s holding her breath until I something…which is also scary because what happens if I don’t want to hug her. Will she EVER exhale and stop being shocked to see me?”

None of this is thought out by our young kids, naturally. This isn’t a cognitive process, but an intuitive emotional and neuro/physiological one.

Did that mark him? Of course not. Did he develop quirks with every teacher from that moment on? Not at all.

If anything, his innocent and earnest desire to express his anxiety about her “surprising” him several years ago ultimately helped integrate something profound for him, healing whatever association he had with that unease, and empowered him to trust his OWN feelings as well as my willingness to hear and see his perspective.

Some children sense…an inauthenticity of emotion. It’s not even that we’re consciously trying to fake our feelings or the expression of them. It’s that we may sometimes assume that children want or even need bigger emotions from us to a) match theirs b) arouse or activate theirs c) entertain them… d) distract them from any potential discomfort or ironically… e) show them that they can trust us.

When a child doesn’t ‘receive’ a deliberately exaggerated emotional reaction from a grownup, it’s not a sign of poor social skills or rudeness or shyness or anything “wrong” with the child. It’s a child’s brilliant and poignantly powerful emotion detector system at work. He may not be sure if that emotion is real. That can translate to a sense of anxiety, fear, uneasiness, unsure of the depth of connection possible with that person.

I shared the story with Miss Peggy over a cup of tea. She was understanding. I let Ben know I talked with her. The next time she saw him, she smiled and said, “Good morning Ben!” No gasp. No frozen shock face. No arms wide anxiously awaiting his hug so she could exhale.

And? The subsequent process of having his teacher acknowledge him through a simple shift in her own response turned out to be very significant. Why? Research shows that a young child’s experience of turning negative emotions into positive ones with a caregiver/significant adult is the basis of resilience. (Tronick) It’s not that the child does the heavy lifting for turning things around, but that he or she experiences the joy of co-creating that change. Tronick says that’s hope and trust in the making.

Miss Peggy stood to the side of the door and made way for him to enter. He smiled, returned the greeting, even gave her a hug, and then proceeded to tell her what he dreamed the previous night.

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