"Put away the scissors, please."
A simple instruction, made politely but, still, an instruction (not a request), spoken in a tone of kindness. Simple, yes?
As a teacher in the Youth Church at Center for Spiritual Living-St. Louis, I give instructions like this every Sunday morning. I've given thousands of similar-sounding instructions to youngsters across my decades of life, as a preschool teacher and director, auntie and now great-auntie, godmother, and friend-of-the-parent. Mostly, children have complied.
So why did this child freeze, staring at his lap, where he grasped the scissors tightly, hands trembling a bit? Grim-faced, stony in his little body, he did not comply with my instructions.
This little boy came from a family in which he had been a witness to and victim of violence--verbal, physical, and sexual--over his seven short years on the planet. That's why he couldn't comply.
Say, whaaaat? Yep. Stay with me a minute....
If you're a regular reader, you'll know I'm always talking out how we spend the first seven years literally building our brains, wiring all the neurons together. My purpose in offering developmental do-overs is to encourage the re-wiring you need, to live with greater self-governance and ego-awaress, leading in your life, and free from self-imposed barriers, rather than being knocked around by your life circumstances.
Well, this little boy's brain wiring froze him in place, in response to a simple, kind request. Kids who grow up in environments where they feel threatened have bigger, more developed amygdillas--fear centers--at the bases of their brains. Early in life, their brains wire-up lots of connections to prepare them for fight, flight, or freeze in the face of threat.
And for these children, threats are everywhere. Each novel experience, no matter how benign it seems to us adults, is a threat, simply because it's novel -- it's new, therefore unknown, therefore a threat.
Can a kindlly, politely-worded instruction from even a familiar adult be perceived as a threat? If this kind of instruction is new in the child's life (i.e., they've only been yelled at or ignored before, never kindly instructed)...you bet! An over-sized amygdilla equates the unknown with fear, even if the unknown thing is benign by others' standards.
When a child is "resistant" or "oppositional" or "defiant" (all words I've heard applied to children as young as 15 months), it means he's afraid...and frozen in fear. As Dr. Bruce D. Perry, Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, has said, "A defiant child is a fearful child."
Get it? This kid was not ignoring me, defying me, or resisting me. He was frozen, from the brainstem down. Amygdilla-driven fear actually overrides the thinking part of the brain. When we're reacting from the fear center of our brains, we literally cannot think. Cortisol, a stress hormone, floods the body, suppressing short-term memory (what did she want me to do???) and elevating both blood sugar and blood pressure. A child in this state may actually be feeling light-headed or dizzy, or experience tunnel vision and other physiological changes in feeling and perception.
As the adult in this situation, then, our instinctual responses--to ramp up the intensity of the request, predict negative consequences of inaction, and gather up our anger and indignation at being ignored--well, that instinct is exactly the opposite of what is needed.
Instead, stay quiet. Move away. Give him a few minutes to thaw and return to his conscious brain that thinks and reasons. Let the Cortisol released by the brain ebb away. Let the freeze melt.
Then, if the child doesn't comply with your instruction, come back. Come close, gently and with love, rather than anger. Maybe a light touch on the shoulder, maybe eye contact and a smile. "Sweetie, I need you to put those scissors away now, please. Can I help you by showing you where they go?"
Maybe our biggest mistake with children is projecting our adult interpretations onto their behavior--assigning meanings that we've learned from listening to and interacting with other adults and, frankly, from watching drama on stage and screen.
All child behavior does have meaning. It's just rarely the one we adults assign. Soooo...freeze, mister (or madam), and let your child thaw a little before you move in for the rigourous discipline. Most children become truly defiant and oppositional because we tell them they are, over and over, when they're just frozen in fear.
My TEDx talk, "Never Lost Forever," on the lost art of dreaming the big dreams in life, is available on my YouTube Channel at http://bit.ly/NeverLost4Ever. I hope you enjoy it and share it with others!