When Kids and Parents Don’t Click

“My son/daughter has been difficult from birth!” “Why can’t he just listen?” “I have to tell her ten times before she does what I ask!” “My oldest is just like me and we get along. I don’t know who my youngest is-I just don’t understand him/her!”

                The chemistry or “click” between each child and each parent is determined by a complex set of factors, including genetic make-up, temperament, gender, physical health, and the degree to which each fulfills the expectations of the other. When children and parents are operating as a maturational team, there is a reciprocal exchange of more positive than negative feelings. Simply put, parents and kids like each other because they feel they are like each other. This makes the job of parents-to help develop in the child insulation or a protective barrier as a buttress against the outside world-easier. However, when any one of the above variables results in parents and kids feeling dissimilar-not alike-there can develop a feeling of discomfort, misunderstanding, or even dislike in the dyad. In short, when parents and kids don’t “click,” life becomes more difficult. Some parents are not “good” parents for some kids and some kids are not “good” kids for some parents. While this may be mitigated when the other parent can make up for the lack of match, it becomes a significant dilemma if the parent (still most often the mother) that spends the majority of time with a child feels no click with that child.

                There are many examples of this lack of “click”. Kids and parents may have different temperaments. This is often reflected in the degree of contact an individual desires. If a child has a greater need for contact than a parent does, then the child may create situations-even negative ones-to create the desired contact. The child may become clingy or develop separation anxiety, requiring an already reluctant parent to spend more time together. A child’s aggressivity or impulsivity may frighten and “turn off” a parent. This occurs frequently in mixed gender dyads where the child is male and the mother just doesn’t “get” the child. Passive children frustrate type A parents who are stymied by the difference between their own curiosity and capacity for initiative in contrast to their child’s lack of interest in the world and need for prodding in order to do schoolwork, get a job, etc. Similarly, when children do not fulfill parents’ expressed or unexpressed wishes for the kind of child they wanted (i.e. someone like themselves), the resulting disappointment can feel devastating. Disappointment in children for any reason may lead to emotional communications from parents that are critical and destructive to children’s development and the parent-child chemistry.  Kids, too, can either choose to move closer to/identify with or reject parents based upon a felt experience of being like or unlike one another.

                Talk psychotherapy can help in repairing ruptures in the parent-child relationship when chemistry is missing. Helping parents and children to become a functioning team requires that each learn to tolerate their differences and accept each other. Difficulties arise when the feelings of disappointment, frustration, or anger are not expressed in words. Nevertheless, kids’ felt experience of these emotions from their parents and vice versa produce powerful waves that influence the lives of both. When these feelings-especially the negative (“taboo”) ones-can be put into words, the intensity of the unverbalized but felt negative emotions can be diminished and a meaningful dialogue can be sustained.

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Emotional Attunement in the Classroom: The Importance of Being Connected

Image                Each year, teachers spend more time than they would like responding to a multitude of students’ off-task behaviors.  These may include the extremes of mild inattention/cognitive drift to sleeping in class or talking with peers to oppositional/hostile verbalizations directed at teachers. Students’ behaviors are frequently viewed as an affirmation of their lack of motivation, unwillingness to learn, or uncooperativeness, inducing in teachers an irritation that engenders, in turn, negative feelings toward these students. However, what if this “reading” of students’ actions misses an important emotional communication inherent in these seemingly annoying behaviors? What if students are indicating that the academic demands make them feel incompetent/frustrated/hopeless/unsafe and in order to survive they must separate themselves from the task at hand? What if personal preoccupations (i.e. home problems; peer issues) make it impossible to attend to the daily lesson? When these conditions exist, there is a mismatch between teachers’ need to teach and students’ needs to do something other than learn at that moment in time.

                Students’ behaviors, when deciphered correctly, reveal a communicative and survival function that can be translated by teachers into an accurate, responsive approach to instruction.  This approach begins with the thesis that students need to feel safe and comfortable in order to learn. Emotional safety at school is achieved by providing the kind of atmospheric conditions that are akin to those “good enough” parents provide for children as they are growing up. A holding environment is created by responsive adults that allow students to feel safe and competent because they feel understood.  Feeling understood, in turn, offers students the emotional comfort of feeling connected. When teachers take the time to decipher students’ behaviors from the students’ point of view, accurate and responsive instruction can ensue. This is because acknowledging students’ emotional states allow teachers to join with students, affording students the feeling that they are with someone like them. Being with someone like you translates into feeling liked by that person and liking that person in return. Understanding generates instructional practices that are accurately responsive to students’ needs. Simply put, students may not be ready for a spelling lesson simply because the teacher is teaching it. It is my contention that accurate emotional attunement is part and parcel of a comprehensive teaching plan that highlights differentiation of instruction.

                There are, of course, significant obstacles to becoming emotionally attuned to students, starting with the institutional demands to press forward with an often challenging curriculum whether students are ready for it or not. Teachers may feel they do not have the luxury of time to do the required “reading” of students. However, students whose behaviors signal anxiety, discomfort, frustration, or a general need to escape demands that are making them experience intolerable emotions will continue to pose challenges to teachers until someone can accurately decipher those signals.

                How this is accomplished is beyond the scope of this paper, but it can be said that the approach involves a very active plan to consult with students at every point of the way. Consulting immediately generates in students the feeling that teachers are genuinely interested in them and value what they say (even if they do not agree). More specific ideas about how to go about this kind of consulting will follow.           

HELPING PARENTS AND TEACHERS WITH EARLY IDENTIFICATION OF LEARNING CHALLENGES

 The early identification of children’s unique learning styles and learning disabilities can spare children, parents, and teachers from the tortuous ordeal that school could become when learning issues go unnoticed or misdiagnosed.

 Sadly, some teachers are not trained in identifying differing learning styles and disabilities and assume that children who are not performing are unmotivated or just not very smart. Parents who depend on teachers to make judgments about their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses may either receive inaccurate information about their child or none at all.  

 In this context, I want to offer some hallmarks of learning style differences. Children are often better at learning information via auditory or visual channels. Auditory learners may do well when information is presented in the form of lectures while visual learners do best when information is presented visually. While teachers use both kinds of presentations in the course of their teaching, education becomes more and more a verbal and auditory medium as children progress through school. Thus, children whose verbal /language and auditory processing skills are less mature than their visual/nonverbal skills may be at a distinct disadvantage in “getting” much of what teachers present. They may not intake directions well or even understand them. Similarly, children whose visual and visual organizational skills are less mature may have difficulty with information presented visually or data that needs to be manipulated visually. A good example of this is math computation where operations that require correct lining up of columns of numbers may prove to be challenging. Remembering material that is presented verbally or visually may also be affected by processing difficulties. Memory for specific words or names may be a challenge for some learners. These children may be unable to recall specific names or words but can explain concepts in other terms if given the chance. Children who have difficulty staying on-task, being organized and planful, activating themselves to work, or completing tasks in a timely manner may be experiencing executive functioning problems. 

Of course, difficulties in any of these areas influence how children feel about themselves. It is not a very far leap from a learning issue to become a psychological self-esteem issue. The danger here is that misdiagnosis or no diagnosis of learning style differences or actual disabilities may result in an accumulation of underachievement and lack of success over the years. Children who do not feel they are good at academics are often less motivated to put effort into their schoolwork. For them, school becomes the kind of daily drudgery and torture that adults who dislike their job experience.

 Early identification permits parents to plan appropriately for children who may need something different or more than schools are able or willing to offer. A psycho-educational or neuropsychological evaluation is a first step in understanding the way a child learns and in identifying obstacles in a child’s intellectual functioning that interfere with academic achievement. An evaluation can include also achievement tests that are used to contrast a child’s performance with his/her abilities. Finally, the identification of non-academic factors can determine if emotional blocks are contributing to learning problems. An evaluation will also tell us whether other adjunctive evaluations (i.e. medical, educational, neurological) can add to our understanding of a child’s learning issues.