A third-grader was brought to my school counselling office because he had physically attacked a classmate in a dispute over a pencil. The child, who I’ll call Jace, was steaming mad and made it clear that he would hurt the student even worse, given half a chance.
A typical intervention may have been to focus on Jace’s behaviour, the impact of his actions on the other student, and help him problem-solve how he could fix the situation and handle it differently next time.
However, Jace was clearly in the “fight” mode of the brain’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Reasoning with him would have been futile in his elevated state. His prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain tasked with logic and reasoning – was offline. To get it back online, I needed to soothe the less-evolved part of Jace’s brain – the amygdala, or emotion center:
“Wow, Jace, I can tell you’re super angry. Something big must have happened!”
By first naming the emotion, I communicated to Jace that I saw him and not just the behaviour that brought him to my office. I opened the door for him to tell me about the big thing that caused his fury.
With every angry utterance, I reflected emotions like “mad”, “scary”, “frustrated”, “upset” and connected the feelings to his perception of the situation. Gradually, Jace’s body and brain calmed down and he was able to talk calmly about what had happened. My paraphrase eventually sounded something like,
“Jace, I hear that you really wanted to print neatly to make your teacher proud of you. When the other student took the last fat pencil, you got scared because you don’t think you can print neatly with a regular pencil. Printing is hard, and you really wanted to earn your teacher’s praise. You felt mad at your classmate because it seemed like he was stopping you from doing the good job you wanted to do. And now you’re sad because your teacher got upset with you.”
When Jace felt understood, he also felt safe to cry and express the big emotions underneath the fury: Fear, frustration, and sadness. Kids need adults to help them get their brains back in balance when they are dysregulated. Once they’re calm, they are in a better position to reflect and take responsibility for their actions.
Jace amazed me that day in his transformation from wanting to kill his classmate to dictating a heartfelt apology letter for not only hitting him and squeezing him around the chest, but for scaring and hurting him. Jace read the letter to his classmate and asked him if they could still be friends. Both children seemed relieved and Jace’s self-esteem was preserved.
We also problem-solved the situation and rehearsed how he might handle it differently by asking his teacher if there were any more ‘fat' pencils - a simple solution that did not seem simple at the time.
Some might argue that I coddled a violent student; however, we can accept the child without accepting the behaviour. Helping kids downshift from “fight, flight, or freeze” by naming and validating their emotions paves the way for them to empathize with others, accept responsibility, and eventually learn how to regulate their own emotions and solve their own problems.
For more on Emotion Coaching, check out https://www.emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org/steps-of-emotion-coaching/