Silent Has the Same Letters as Listen
Editors Note: We are excited to welcome Kay Westwood to our team of writers at Hope 4 Hurting Kids. We have no doubt that her experience as both a parent and a mental health practitioner will be a blessing to the Hope 4 Hurting Kids community.
Sometimes we assume that anger is the only emotion in children that needs to be listened to and addressed. Many times though, particularly with children who are hurting, it is the silence that we should be listening to.
Why do children choose silence?
If you ask a child who is going through dramatic changes in their life if they’re okay, they will most likely say “yes.” Why is this, if it’s not what they mean? It’s because:
- It’s easier to have you off their back;
- Because they don’t really know how to follow-up with a “no;” and
- Because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Children are more complex and intelligent than we give them credit for.
I remember when my own child said he didn’t want to go to his daddy’s house one weekend because he was scared I’d feel lonely and sad without him. He was 6. At only 6 years of age, he was putting himself lower than his mother on his priority list. How selfless of him! How clever of him to think so empathetically at such a young age. As his mother, I was proud, but he is not alone in his reaction. All children are capable of feeling this level of emotion, and as every child is unique, so are the many ways these emotions may come out. My child’s reaction to any disruption of the routine was tears spiralling down his face. Other children use silence as their coping mechanism of choice.
How are children’s coping mechanisms different from adults?
For a start children, don’t have the independence that we do. They don’t have much say in the way they live their lives. They must go to school. They have to bath and brush their teeth. They have to eat their food or they can’t leave the table. You see, they have little say. So, feeling out of control is a much higher possibility for a child.
Many of these things that are beyond their control are for their own good. The difference is, as an adult I know eating salad is for my good. Despite that knowledge, in needy times I often go for the pizza and chocolate. This may seem trivial and by no means do I want you to go and feed your children sweets for dinner when they’re feeling blue, however, I want you to understand that when children feel low and out of control with their emotions, they don’t have the choices an adult does to make themselves feel better. There choices are much more limited.
This seeming lack of available coping mechanisms leads to one of the worst self-defeating behaviors of all time:
Repression of Emotions
Unable to self-heal in many ways, children often internalize their emotions and repress whatever they can get away with. Silence makes this easy and leads to a vicious cycle. If children have nothing to say, people won’t ask any questions and this allows the child time to repress their emotions even further. Many of us adults are guilty of telling our children to be quiet too often. Children learn that silence is benefits them because they don’t get in trouble when they’re quiet. It’s a win-win for them, or so they think.
What can we do to help?
Children often don’t know how to articulate their emotions, especially younger children. They may say they feel sad but they could mean worried, disappointed, angry, guilty, and so many more. When children are silent though, there are some things we can do:
- Don’t put words in their mouth. Don’t push them to say things they may not even know the meaning of. You can help them to build a vocabulary so that they can talk to you, but avoid tell them how they’re feeling
- Reconnect with your child. Make time for them. Get on the floor and build that Lego castle whilst talking about their passion for dinosaurs. Go for a walk together. Play a game. Invest time in the child so that they know you care.
- Love them. The absolute first part of healing is to know that even though they’ve changed recently you are always there for them, you will always have time for them, and that your love for them is indeed unconditional. They don’t need to talk about how much they’re hurting, that may or may not come in time. What they need from you is love, affection, no judgement, no pressure, and I’ll say it once more, they need your time. Learning that you are still there for them no matter what and that you are interested in what they say, whether it be about Pokémon or school, will make it easier if/when they do want to open up to you.
- Another benefit to making time for your child while enforcing playing and fun is that they learn how to relax again. Anxious children (and adults for that matter) are tense. Anxiety comes from fear, and fear makes us worried and tense. Playing with your child in a trusting environment will enable them to relax and feel comforted by you. Whilst going through family troubles, children often feel betrayed by the parents, comforting them with play and conversation helps them reverse those feelings of betrayal.
None of us are perfect parents whether we are divorced or not, but if you want to make one change to benefit your child this week, make sure it’s to play for a little longer. The power of playing is as good as therapy for children.
For more awesome resources for learning about and dealing with emotions, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Emotions Help Center.