During the fifth year of The Clearwater School, we attracted several new students, including some 5-7 year old boys. An interaction with one of those boys forever changed my response to children’s powerful, dark emotions. What I learned from that experience–and many more opportunities to practice–has enabled me to be more present with anyone who is in the throes of dark emotions.
(By way of definition, when I use the term “dark emotions,” I mean emotions such as anger, rage, fear, grief, despair, and shame.)
One of the new young boys, whom I’ll call Brad, was six years old and what some people would call a difficult child. He desperately wanted to play with the other little boys and was full of a manic kind of joy whenever they included him. The trouble was that Brad was aggressive in his attempts to engage other children in play. He hadn’t yet figured out essential social cues that make it easier to enter in to a group, or the nuances of cooperation that make play fun and satisfying. There were lots of difficult things in Brad’s life outside of school that made it mostly impossible for him to pay attention to anyone other than himself.
Like a bull in a china shop, Brad repeatedly crashed ongoing games, only to be adamantly rebuffed. Occasionally, the other boys reluctantly included him, but he usually undermined himself by trying to take over and direct everyone. Disgusted and angry, the other boys stopped playing with him.
Brad’s feelings of rejection after these experiences triggered his rage. He lashed out at the people he wanted as friends, they rejected his overtures, and the heartbreaking cycle repeated over and over. His rage frequently became physical: he threw things, shoved, kicked and hit people. We staff members told him to stop and had to physically restrain him to keep him from hurting people.
One of the core tenets of The Clearwater School is that students and staff members are equally responsible for ensuring that everyone is safe and treated with respect. Although adult staff are ultimately responsible for everyone’s safety, they share power equally with students and do not take on an authoritarian role. It was deeply unsettling and uncomfortable to have to restrain Brad, because using physical power is contrary to protecting students’ personal freedom and self-determination. It was soon obvious that Brad would either have to quickly learn to control his anger or he could not be at our school.
One day, Brad came to school angry and even less capable than usual of considerate interactions with the other boys. Almost immediately, something triggered him and he became enraged at his friends. He began throwing things at them and at the windows with alarming force. I shouted at him to stop and when he didn’t, I grabbed his arms. Of course, the restraint just added fuel to his blazing anger. He struggled and tried to hurt me.
I told Brad he had to stop hurting people and damaging the building. If he didn’t, I would call his mom to pick him up and take him home as soon as possible. He tore out of my grasp, grabbed a stuffed animal toy he’d brought to school that day, and viciously wrenched and tore at it.
His rage was deep and powerful. I was scared of it and him. He and his dangerous emotions were terrifyingly out of control. I wanted to destroy his anger. I was the adult and it felt like my job to control him. The problem was that his emotional storm had crashed over me. I felt out of control and helpless to know what to do.
He continued to thrash and I tried to restrain him, but he broke away from me, threw the stuffed toy on the floor, ran outside, and climbed the jungle gym. I was relieved that his dangerous energy was now outdoors and he wasn’t immediately trying to hurt anybody.
I kept an eye on him as my mind worked furiously to try to figure out how to gain control. In the midst of my fear and desperation, I was also curious about the new stuffed animal he had savaged. Something about his treatment of the toy made me think it represented something or someone that was the real source of his anger that day. I picked it up, went outside and stood near the jungle gym.
Brad eyed me with a sullen, resentful look. I asked him about the stuffed toy–where he got it, why he brought it. He said he hated the toy and wanted to destroy it. The pain at the root of his anger was suddenly palpable.
I wasn’t scared anymore. My desire to control him evaporated. With a little more probing I found out that his mom’s boyfriend had recently given him the toy in an attempt to make up for breaking a promise to take Brad on a highly-anticipated outing. It sounded like it wasn’t the first time. Brad was understandably hurt and furious.
Without judgment I said, “When you attacked the stuffed animal, I bet you imagined it was your mom’s boyfriend.” Brad’s energy abruptly shifted. The sullenness was gone and he looked at me as if seeing me for the first time–a human being like him. No longer was I yet another adult he had to obey or please. In that moment, I was someone who understood and accepted him.
After that, our relationship shifted. I felt ecstatic and overwhelmed by the power of that connection, and I was committed to maintaining it. Brad decided to trust me and reveal his vulnerable, big heart. Every day after that, he gave me at least one big hug. He felt safe.
It was not all wine and roses. For a while, Brad continued to take his anger out on other people. The school community generously gave him lots of chances and supported him by setting clear boundaries around his out-of-control behavior. Incrementally, he figured out ways to contain and channel his rage. He spent days, months and years learning how to care for and give to his friends, even when it meant he didn’t always get what he wanted.
Today, Brad is a sensitive, empathic young man who is emotionally available to his friends and family. As for me, I learned that children’s emotions are no less powerful and important than those of adults. Exerting adult power and control over children and their emotions is a type of violence, because it trivializes and dishonors them. Children respond to attempts to control them by putting up defensive emotional barriers to protect themselves, but the effort of maintaining those walls means they can’t put much energy into personal growth and development. By recognizing the humanness of Brad’s pain and anger, I re-established space for him to work with his emotions, and accept support from me and others in the community to continue learning and growing.