Have you noticed how children mirror your emotions?
Kids are sponges. They eat up the way adults in their lives act around them, and more importantly — the way they react. The younger they are, the more they look to the grown ups to help define their worlds —both internal and external.
Our emotional literacy, or the way we interpret and express emotions, is a skill that we strengthen both automatically and deliberately as we grow older. As babies, we develop the ability to interpret sensations — touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing — to learn about what defines our environment. Even children who may not have full use of all five senses are able to develop an emotional understanding of their environment early on. Our brains are constantly scanning our environments for information that ensures our survival. If we are safe, comfortable, and not exerting too much energy — our brains are happy. It means we are in a state that perpetuates us, well, continuing to exist.
An emotional reaction is most often triggered by an external event (sometimes, the event is internal — an intrusive thought, an idea, a memory) — something that interferes with our ability to be “safe, comfortable, and stationary”. This could be the appearance of a spider on our chair, or a text from a friend that we’ve been waiting to hear from. Each one is an external interference to the status quo — while one tends to have fear attached to it, the other might have happiness or relief. How our brain interprets these reactions is what creates the emotion that then manifests across our body, and eventually into action. A repeated set of reactions and actions creates a behavior, which can, of course impact physiological and spiritual wellbeing.
As children, we are born with these sensors that help us detect changes in our environments, but we learn how to interpret them from the people around us. If a child grows up in a part of the world where there is a lot of violence, their fear triggers will tend to be more sensitive than a child who grows up in an environment that does not. If a child grows up with an anxious parent, they too will likely adopt many of these same responses as they grow older. Anxiety is what I like to call a cluster — a set of singular emotions that come together to form a larger one. It is made up mainly of anger, fear, and sadness — although it may also involve disgust in some cases. If a child watches a caregiver repeatedly respond to the sound of clicking with an anxious response, the child will likely do so too.
Whether they are your child, your student, or even a child that you happen to be talking to- when they experience something that impacts their status quo, they will look to you for help recognizing what the correct emotional response should be. The classic example is of a child falling down — if there are adults around, the child will first look around to see how the adults react — then decide if the ruling emotion is the fear when they started falling, the sadness of being hurt, or the anger of play being interrupted.
Likewise, in a classroom setting, when a child says something that they know will elicit a reaction from peers, they are often looking at the teacher to set the emotional tone of the reaction. Teaching middle school was like being in a constant experiment — at least once per class, a student would say something designed to rile up, inspire, or provoke their fellows — and would look to me (or whoever the teacher in the room is) to set the emotional tone. It is often a split second decisions — especially the younger the students are — am I reacting in anger? Am I going to ignore the comment and move on? Am I going to play along? Will I make this a teaching moment? The last one tended to be my response, and thus why so many of my former students have left my class with emotional language corresponding to how to respond to provocative comments. Several became so attuned to their own emotions and the emotions of their peers that they have used this skill in joining debate teams, model UNs, forming groups and coalitions and other such constructs that require emotional literacy.
This past year, my daughter had a teacher who was particularly good at setting the emotional tone in her classroom. Part of it was her dedication to getting to know each student’s need and attuning to it, but part of it was genuinely thinking about the overall emotional structure that she wanted her classroom to have. Many times over the course of this year, I would hear my daughter telling my son, her younger brother, that “now is a time to be flexible and considerate!” or “time for magic five!” Even as my children, I am constantly amazed by their breadth of emotional knowledge — how to validate, hold, and listen — even when it is hard, or when it is confusing. They are lucky, they have been surrounded by (mostly) emotionally attuned adults.
I’ll say it again — if any part of your life involves children, you are surrounded by little sponges. They are constantly aware of the way you respond to the stimuli around you — whether external or internal. I have the immense privilege of working with kids as young as 2 and as old as 18 over the course of my year, so I get to see how emotional literacy evolves across developmental stages. Even teenagers are looking to the adults in their lives to decide how they should react — it may be more subtle than the three year old looking around after a fall, but you better bet that they’re looking to you. An adolescent going through a hard time in a friendship, or at school, or with their mental health is constantly scanning their environment for adults that can actively listen, support, hold, and validate their emotional health. If that teenager is your child, or your student — you better hope that adult can be you — and not someone they will meet in another medium (more on why we sometimes search for anonymous support in another post…).
So, next time you find yourself reacting emotionally, particularly around children — take a moment to ask yourself whether this is a reaction you would likely want someone to learn. I know it’s hard — the classroom can be a busy, chaotic, emotion filled environment with a variety of competing agendas. You need to finish a lesson, but the students have questions , or the school has set up a special ceremony, or there’s a fire drill, or your phone rings and it’s bad news, or the principal is observing your class, or a student is having a crisis….there are many ways in which we can defer to our primitive (meaning — the ones wired into our brains) responses.
It only takes a second to take a deep breath, to connect with what is happening in your body, and to realize what emotion you are feeling — and then to name it. “Oh boy, this fire drill right now is interrupting our lesson, and that makes me feel fairly frustrated and sad, I wonder how we can best resolve this after we return safely…” is a very different reaction than “UGH!! Not again! Okay kids lets go, come on, quickly ,hurry up! The faster we get this over with, the faster we can get back to class!”
So, let’s recap: little sponges -even as teenagers.
Ask yourself: Is this an emotional reaction I would want someone else to learn?