Mis-firing Emotions

Recently I had to explain the Civil Rights Movement to a student. “There was a time,” I began, “when black people were not allowed to go to certain schools. They were not allowed to ride certain buses. They couldn’t even use the drinking fountain.”

After laughing and then cracking a joke or two, the student asked, “Can I go get a drink now?”

I knew that this student was connecting with the emotions of those in the Civil Rights Movement. I knew at that moment, this was not just about being thirsty–this was about being thankful that drinking fountains were now open to every race and ethnicity.

The asian boy is making face  in blue pajamas with reddish background

Often students with emotional disorders–especially those who have gone through trauma–have trouble expressing their emotion properly. I can relate to them, because growing up I was slightly dissociative. I would laugh when someone got hurt, even though inside I felt awful. Some of my current students do this. They can also laugh when they feel overwhelmed or anxious. In fact, most of the time those students who goof off in class are struggling with some sort of anxiety or insecurity. Acting out is a coping mechanism.

I have been called too-sensitive and completely insensitive. In reality, I struggle to express my emotion at the appropriate time and level. Much of the way I react to situations now is learned from others. I have learned how to show the empathy that I always felt inside.

Now, what does “dissosiative” mean? It is amazing. It allows the brain to disconnect from an emotion when that emotion is too overwhelming. We all experience this phenomenon at times, but those with anxiety, trauma history, or an emotional disorder, tend to experience it more often. In my childhood, it was my coping mechanism against anxiety.

I see this phenomenon in my students all the time. And a big part of my job is actually to help them understand and embrace their own emotions.

So what do you do when a kid laughs at an inappropriate time? Or when they say something rude in a serious moment?

As with most behavioral issues, the best thing to do is ask a question. Not a leading question, not a “what-do-you-think-you’re-doing” question, but something like this:

“How do you feel right now?”

Or, if you know the child well enough, something I often say is: “You seem uncomfortable/upset/irritated/tired. What’s going on?”

I like guessing their emotion, because if I am wrong they will usually open up to tell me so, and then I can know what they are feeling. And if I am right, it reassures them that I care and I notice the subtle hints they drop for me. However, you must know the child. Some of my students DO NOT like to be asked questions like this because they feel singled-out or accused. For those students, I try to keep things as open-ended as possible, or simply start talking about my own feelings, as these students also are expert eaves-droppers and may feel comfortable opening up if I do.

After getting to know why the student is acting in whatever odd manner that they are, you can then explain to them with kindness that there are more appropriate ways to respond. Be sure to include why–a lot of kids don’t know.

“I know that you laughed because you were starting to feel stressed out. But sometimes when we laugh during a serious conversation, other people think we are making fun of them. I know that you didn’t mean to make fun of anyone. So let’s brainstorm some other options for the next time you feel stressed out. Maybe you can take space from the group, or you can hold a fidget in your hand to play with.”

And of course, ending with:

“I’m really glad you told me how you felt. Now I know that whenever you act like that, you are feeling this way. Next time I will be able to help you communicate that to everyone.”

The bottom line is, kids feel emotion. They feel empathy and compassion. They just may not know how to express it. These feelings might make them uncomfortable or even anxious. But you can gently help them put words to the things they cannot explain, and show them by example that sharing emotion is a perfectly normal and human act. Get to know the sometimes odd ways that emotion is expressed, and learn to love these extremely loving beauties like I do!


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