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Giving Children Time and Space to Process Their Big Emotions

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Now say you’re sorry. You need to forgive him. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t raise your voice to me. You need to have the right attitude. I’m going to give you ‘til the count of three to get it together. Stop crying.

As a parent and educator I have said all of these things, and at times, all of them are needed. But sometimes they denied the reality of the emotions that a student or child was walking through, and it showed an expectation of them that I did not have of myself.

We have all seen the scenario. An adult standing there with two children, who are glaring at each other. The coach looks at the students and says, “Now say you’re sorry, shake hands and be friends.”

Being a parent or a teacher is never easy. At times there are so many conflicting values and emotions in a situation, it is hard to find a balance that meets the needs of the situation and the needs of the student. Imagine this scene: you’re in the middle of something and another person walks in the door interrupting you, telling you something needs to be done, now. As an adult do you have the right attitude? Are you frustrated by the interruption? Do you maybe even roll your eyes or have a slight breathing problem? Now imagine this situation, you’re married and a disagreement arises between your spouse and yourself (I know, this would never happen). The fight gets more heated, tempers flare, and things are said that hurt one another. What do you do? Do you keep fighting making the issue worse? Do you walk away and give each other time and space to process the emotions and then come back and have a more civilized discussion? Does somebody force you to apologize and forgive each other, or shake hands and be friends?

I ask these questions because I’ve noticed as adults and parents, we often have different expectations for ourselves than the young people in our lives. Students and children are expected to suppress their emotions and reactions or get over them quickly, while as adults, we are willing to give ourselves and others the time and space to process these things. Very early in my marriage, I did not understand the wisdom in this, and sometimes walking away from a fight with me was not an option. But over time, after many fights that did not go well, I realized both my wife and I needed the space and time, and when we gave each other that, we were usually able to work out a solution. But when I forced and pushed for instant resolution and apologies, the fight often got much worse before it got better.

Now please understand I’m not saying that disrespect, rudeness or unkind behavior is OK, or that children should be able to have whatever reactions they want to, because part of growing up is guiding our children and helping them learn how to react to different situations. Often, we expect instant conformity and solutions from our children, not giving them the time to process. When we do this, we get the very reactions we often do not want to see from them. We will give ourselves time to process and deal with the situation, but not them. Sometimes we push so hard and expect such instant conformity, we actually make the situation worse and miss a golden opportunity to really help our children work through the very real emotions they are feeling.

As a principal, daily, I would have students arrive at my office. Sometimes there would be a fight, sometimes it would be a bad attitude, sometimes it would be outright disrespect and rudeness occurring, but whatever the situation the students would come to me needing an “attitude adjustment.” Many times the teacher realized that the student was not in the place yet to deal with what needed to be dealt with, and basically needed a time out. As a young principal, I would sometimes “hit the ground running” and start dealing with that issue immediately, and usually, the results were not what we hoped for.

After many instances of this, without the success rate that I hoped for, I decided to try a different approach. One day two students walked into my office furious with each other. There had been some heated exchanges on the basketball court and both students had reached the point of wanting to throw punches. I had them come in and sit down and I just continued working. They sat there, the heat of anger radiating from both, for a few minutes. All the while I just kept sitting there working. As they sat there in the cool office in silence, their anger began to subside. After a few more minutes one of them looked at me and said, “Mr. Mickles, are you ready to talk? We had a fight and I think the teacher wanted us to talk to you?”

I turned the students and we began to have a very profitable and helpful discussion, and by the end of the conversation, the students voluntarily apologized and forgave each other. The conversation went great, and both were able to see their error. The difference in this and other situations: I gave the students the time and space to deal with their very real frustrations and hurt that came from this interaction. When I did that, I wasn’t saying the reactions were OK, but that I understood the need to just take a breath and step back from the situation so they could handle it correctly. Because of that, when we did have the conversation, it was one they were ready for, and one that was helpful for each of the students.

As educators and parents, we need to give our students and children the freedom to express their emotions, even when they are not the right responses. We must give them the space to feel the things we all naturally feel, but then lovingly guide them to the correct actions, reactions and feelings. We need to give them the same freedom and grace that we expect for ourselves. Again, I’m not saying that children should be allowed to do whatever they want, but when they’re in the heat of their emotions, how much do they really want to listen to you? When they’ve had time to step back and cool down, I bet the conversation will be much different and much more beneficial for them and the situation.

It took me years to realize this as a parent and an educator. Too often I expected instant conformity when time, understanding and processing were what was needed. As parents and teachers, if we put into practice the same grace we often want and expect for ourselves, I imagine some of these conversations would have a different outcome, and we might just show these young ones the real way to process and work through the feelings we have.

As I said, parenting is never easy, and teaching a classroom full of students presents many challenges. But if you remember that we were once children too, and we approach each situation with the grace, care, love and respect that we want for ourselves, the chances are, the outcome will be very different. And in the process, we will help our children see how to deal with things in a healthier way.

Charles Mickles, author and speaking. He has written, “Mine’s Parkinson’s, What’s Yours?” and “What Christmas Really Is All About?” You can follow his story at Day By Day: My Journey With Parkinson’s.

Getty image by nicoletaionescu

Originally published: June 29, 2021
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