Children Often Tell Us What They Think We Want To Hear

6 years ago by in Coaching Tagged: , , ,

My day job is working as a coach in a primary school. Therefore, my clients are 5-11 year old girls and boys who attend the school I work at. Only once in almost 7 years has a parent turned down the offer for their child to work with me, and the children regularly accost me in the corridors to ask when they can come and see me. My role is valued, my clientelle are keen to participate and so everything is peachy. Actually, there are hurdles between me and peachiness!

We Learn Early In Life How to Appear to Be ‘Acceptable’ to Others

I worked with a 6 year old girl whose behaviour was exemplary at school, but who displayed explosive anger and aggression at home. It took  six sessions to help her express her real feelings and opinions.  Children often find it difficult to be open and honest when they are giving their opinion or version of events because some of the following factors have been trained and nurtured in to them:

  1. Children learn that complete honesty can hurt other people’s feelings. When they are preschoolers visiting the supermarket and loudly ask their mum why that lady is so fat, they are taught that there are certain things that they shouldn’t say or they will hurt people’s feelings.
  2. Children learn to censor the version of the truth when they speak. When a child returns from a weekend at daddy’s house and tell their mum that Daddy has bought a new computer and mummy shouts “Oh, he’s got enough money for that but not to support his children!” They will censor the information they share next time, to avoid upsetting mummy, hrearing bad things about daddy and feeling sad themselves.
  3. Children are highly tuned into the signals that communicate our pleasure and displeasure. Most children want to please and will sometimes mold their version of events to do so. For those children who are caught in the trap of seeking negative attention, they may mold it to press the buttons of irritation and anger in the adults around them.
  4. Children are taught to concede to the opinion of adults. We tell them to put on their coat or go to the toilet; when they say that they don’t need to, we may insist, encourage or demand that they do. We know better because experience has taught us. For children, they learn that their first response is not necessarily the ‘right’ one and may doubt their opinions or instincts.

For the little girl above, it was unthinkable to her that she would express sadness about any aspect of her homelife. She loved her family very much and her loyalty to them was strong. She was closed and controlled about her sadness. And because she had no acceptable way to voice or express it, it had found it’s own method to get out via anger and hostility.

Oiling The Social Cogs

I am not saying that as parents and carers we are wrong in all of the above. We do have greater experience and we do sometimes know best. And it is necessary to have concern and empathy for others in what we say and how and when we say it.  The practices mentioned in 1-4 above are needed for the oiling of the social cogs, for letting children know that it is indeed the adults who are in charge and to help them to develop emotional and social skills that are in line with societal expectations of behaviour. What I am pointing to is an overall pattern of communication that children subconsciously receive.

I would simply argue that children are best served when they also have space to be  open and honest. In such a place, they can voice their opinions and ask their awkward questions. They can make themselves vulnerable in a place of acceptance, honesty and learning. If they censor everything and hold in their concerns, misunderstandings, question and responses, then learning and reflection will be replaced by confusion, shame and fear of seeming foolish and ‘unacceptable.’ If this space is not available children will tell us what they think we want to hear. It will be sanitised, cleaned-up and give a more positive slant than they actually perceive.

Exploring Our Whole Self

Adults and children alike deserve to have the opportunity to accept and explore their big feelings, awkward questions and ‘unacceptable’ opininons. If they are held in and tightly controlled, they will find their own route to expression through anger, anxiety, depression, or an excessive attempt to hold them in through exaggerated control mechanisms such as OCD.

When we can take the big feelings out of our heads, lay them out and look at them anew, we can find insights and give them expression. With one boy I worked with we explored his perceptionof how safe he felt by getting puppets to talk about the differences between when they felt safe or in danger; this allowed him to explore these very present feelings in his life a step removed from himself. His sense of danger was manifesting in his life in OCD type behaviours as he fought to make his life feel safe and predictable. For the little girl above I wrote the opposites that you can see on the right. I asked her to place dots on the line to show how home and school felt to her, and to explore why she looked calm and controlled and fiery and explosive at home. She was expressing her confusion and sadness through the far easier to express channel of anger. She was able to admit for the first time aloud that she felt happier at school and that was why her behaviour was so different there.

Polished, Pollyanna, positive and peachy perspectives have their time and place!

They are just not OK in every time and place.

Where and with whom can you be trully yourself and accept all of your feelings?

Where and with whom can children?

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