Learning to watch children

I received my AAP News today and while reading through it, I found two articles that talked about observing children to pick up symptoms.  One dealt with asthma and the other dealt with adolescent depression.  What I found important was that each article

Look at me!

pointed out the importance of really observing children and adolescents so that interventions could be put into place before things fell apart.

I have spent my career observing children, adolescents and their parents, talking with them to understand what I have seen, and using that knowledge to help change their lives in a positive manner.   I have found that I had to train the parents to actually observe their children due to the overwhelming tendency of the parents to jump to conclusions and react, leading to anger, frustration, confusion, and mistrust on both sides.

Why is it so important to learn to watch? Let’s look at an example.  Four year old Sam runs to his mother, wanting her to see his painting.  What she sees when she goes to his room is paint on the floor and all over the bedroom walls, which he has used as his canvas.  She immediately blows up at Sam, possibly spanking him, but definitely using many hurtful words accusing him of deliberately destroying the wall and carpeting with his irresponsibility.  She then goes to work, scrubbing it down, while Sam stands on the sidelines, tears falling down his cheeks, not understanding how his desire to please his mother has gone so wrong.  He may learn that he shouldn’t use paint on the wall anymore (if he is allowed near paints again) but he also has learned that it is dangerous to try to please his mother, because if she doesn’t like it, he will be emotionally and possibly physically hurt.

Forgetting for the moment that it probably is not wise to leave a four-year old alone in a room with paint,  if she had paused to process his emotions when he came to her, she would understand that he was hoping to please her with something he had created.  With this in mind, she should have taken a second to process through the intent of the painting on the wall, watching his face for his emotional intent, and then responding in a nurturing way about how thoughtful he had been to make the nice picture for him.  After all, it is his room, she did leave him unattended, and will the world end if there is 4-year-old art on the wall? She could then have noted that some of the paint had gotten on the carpeting and suggest that they work to clean it up.  After that she could sit down with him and discuss that paintings on walls could get painted over in time due to the need to redo rooms.  She then could talk about providing him with painting paper and an easel, recommending that it be done in a room, such as the kitchen, where Mom could clean any spills easier off of the floor and enjoy the process of his making paintings.

I know that some people will disagree with me, saying that he has to learn that he shouldn’t “destroy property” .  But his intent was not to destroy but to improve, through the beauty of art.  He is also only  four years old, and should have more supervision with materials which could create messes.  He did not come with a manual of dos and don’ts for  living in a house.  He learns through modeling, feedback, and guided support.  He may have misinterpreted the availability of the wall if he had seen people painting walls at home, or in the community.

The fact is, children don’t stay up late nights thinking of things to drive us crazy, it just comes naturally due to their lack of knowledge and sophistication.  That is what growing up is all about and why they need us to help them in a nurturing manner to learn all that they need to become happy, responsible, and competent adults.

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