The Scream Inside

With school starting, many parents are for the first time separating from, and then leaving their children in a new place. This is a different experience from leaving them at home with a known baby sitter, or other familiar relatives or friends. Speaking to such parents, they often express concerns about the so-called “separation anxiety” their children might have, and raise questions about the “right” way to respond. So we tend to focus on how children will feel in these new situations, how such feelings might be expressed in their behavior, and how best to deal with the behavior that may emerge.

But there is another side to these first school separations beyond the initial concerns our children or we may have about their being left with people, and in a place they do not yet know well. Our children are now entering the larger world, learning things we haven’t taught them, and being exposed to influences other than our own. At such times we may be confronted with a sense of having been relegated to second place as the authorities in their lives. We enjoy seeing our children acquire new knowledge, but we may be jolted by being contradicted with, “My teacher says”, or “We don’t do it that way in school.”

This came to mind in a recent conversation with a mother who was relating a discussion she had with other mothers. They were concerned about their children attending a school in the area that had a mixed socio-economic, racial and ethnic population. Their assumption was that many of the children were not appropriate in their social behavior, would have a negative influence on their children, and would require too much of the teacher’s attention, to the detriment of their own children.

This in turn reminded me of a similar discussion in a parents’ group I led some years ago. This group met in conjunction with a nursery program for their children who had various developmental issues, and the meetings were held in a room adjacent to the children’s room. The mothers were concerned about the behavior of one child in the group who was a screamer. Having language difficulties, he would scream when he needed something, or was trying to say something, or at times for no apparent reason at all.

Mothers of the other children were worried about the impact of this behavior on their own children, whether their children would learn that it is okay to scream for something you want. One mother felt that her child had, in fact, started copying this behavior at home. Another mother who had been listening to this discussion expressed her belief that children don’t learn this behavior, saying, “I think if a child screams in school he came to school with a scream in him.”

This was a most profound observation. I think what this mother was trying to say was that such behavior expresses some need the child has specific to him, and is not simply something learned from someone else. She was also saying that she, therefore, was not worried about the possible negative influence on her own child.

My own experience observing and working with young children is that children may “copy” various behaviors of other children, but if it does not express a need of their own, or serve some purpose for them, it will soon drop away. Of course, sometimes we may unwittingly give a new purpose to such behavior by having strong negative reactions to it, which adds another dimension of parental disapproval.

A good example is what can happen when children suddenly start using “potty” words, or demeaning words, in talking to or about others. Parents often say their children don’t hear this at home, and so must have learned it from other children in school. Children do try out words or behavior they hear or see from others, because it is something new, and part of being out in the world is learning about new things. Part of our job as parents, however, is helping children also discriminate between what is worth and not worth learning and emulating.

Children enjoy trying out “potty” talk because it usually coincides with a period when they are learning to manage their own use of the potty, and the talk expresses their own preoccupation with that aspect of their bodily function. In the same way, other unfamiliar words or behavior can express other internal developmental issues they are dealing with, or simply are interesting because they may seem very daring, or grown-up.

We make clear to our children when we don’t like some of the words or behavior they try out. However, if we become too invested in trying to somehow stop it, we provide the added incentive to children of defying us if they continue. We empower the rebellious feelings that all children have at one time or another.

If screams are coming from inside the child, as parents we try to understand what they may be about. Most of the time, however, if we simply let them know that we can’t hear them when they scream, those screams will drop away by themselves.

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