JBCN School Blog

Emotional Pain In Children And It’s Impact On Learning

Emotional Pain In Children

What Is Emotional Pain?

Take a moment, recollect the first time you scraped your knee, now recollect the first time you experienced heartbreak. Which memory was more vivid? For most people, it would be the latter. Feelings of an unpleasant nature, which have caused us distress in the past come to mind more vividly than mild physical afflictions.

In spite of this, we tend to monitor our physical or bodily health far more than we do our mental or social-emotional health. For example, we know that if a small physical injury like a cut becomes more painful over time it is a sign of a more serious infection. But if failing to be a part of a certain social clique at school is still emotionally painful after several weeks, we do not realize that it may cause depression.
When our need for emotional closeness goes unmet, emotional pain can result.

Identifying Emotional Pain In Children

Identifying Emotional Pain In Children Some children (and adults) may have trouble managing negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, and anxiety.
Mia, 12 sitting in the counsellor’s office, describing the part of her heart coloured ‘brown’, “Sometimes the negative stuff increases so much that I feel like my heart is rotting”.

Tina, 8 when asked to explain how her body feels when she’s feeling worried, “It feels like my stomach & head are going to explode, then I get a headache and finally I just vomit”

Children who are anxious or sad may complain of physical problems, such as headaches or stomach aches frequently. Often a medical check-up fails to find a physical reason for these complaints.

Krish, 14 has been labeled as ‘lazy’, ‘unmotivated’ by teachers, when asked anything he either remains silent or frequently states “I don’t know”.

Rajeev,10 is referred for counselling as he is completely inattentive during a class, after a few sessions he mentions “Everyone will laugh at me if I try to answer so I don’t pay attention”

Children who are sad or fearful may lose interest, focus or pleasure in activities they previously focused on or enjoyed. They often seem agitated or irritable.

Some may also have a sense of hopelessness stemming from low self-esteem. These children are often found to have trouble concentrating and thinking and often appear lost.

Tia, 10 binge eats every time she gets low marks on an exam and then fixates on the amount of food consumed.

Children who focus too much on food and eating as well as their body size usually don’t feel very good about themselves and may suffer from anxiety. They often become preoccupied with food to avoid negative feelings and feel better.

Raghav, 7 gets angry and pushes his peers if they make an error or try a method different than his, & insists “this isn’t perfect, so it’s wrong”

Some children tend to externalise their negative feelings by focusing on perfection in everything they attempt. Some others may engage in impulsive or aggressive behaviours to deal with their anger or anxiety.

These examples show that when emotional pain lacks healthy expression, it can manifest in behaviours such as frequent anger outbursts, inattentiveness, complaints of stomach aches or headaches, focus on perfection, or even preoccupation with food in children of all age groups.

Both emotion and learning occur in the brain, hence it comes as no surprise that emotional pain impacts learning in children.

Emotional Pain And Its Impact On Thinking & Learning

Emotion is important in education- it drives attention, which in turn drives learning and memory. Learning requires thinking. Our thoughts influence how we feel. Hence, how we feel impacts how we think or learn.

Negative emotions can either be the cause or effect of problems with learning. Anxiety, sadness, anger or frustration can interfere with learning which causes a maladaptive, self-defeating pattern of behaviour, further preventing learning and stunting mental/emotional growth.

Priscila Vail, an expert on learning, describes emotions as the “on-off switch to learning”. According to Mrs. Vail when this switch is on, the pathway to learning is open, when we are experiencing positive emotions, the message of purpose and excitement drives our behaviour towards a goal, however when we are experiencing negative or painful emotions this switch turns itself off, and thinking and learning are stifled.

Research shows that happiness has a positive effect on learning, memory, and behaviour. When we are happy, we have a ‘clear mind’ and it’s easy for us to focus our attention on the task at hand and learn, but when we are upset ‘we can’t think straight’ , our attention is focused on the emotional pain, leaving minimal room in our brain for concentrating or learning.

Positive emotions such as joy, contentment, acceptance, trust, and satisfaction can enhance learning, conversely, prolonged emotional distress or pain can cripple our learning abilities. Brain imaging studies show that the area for emotions and memory in the brain are the same, making it extremely difficult to recollect information when we are frustrated, angry, anxious or sad.

When ‘unmanaged emotions’ take over they become toxic to our well being and colour our world in shades of black and gray. It is impossible to manage our lives until we can manage these negative pain causing emotions.

Managing Emotional Pain at Home & School

Managing Emotional Pain at Home Being able to recognise, express and manage a wide range of emotions in themselves and others benefits children’s mental health & wellbeing. Parents can help children learn about feelings and how to manage them effectively, by doing the follows:

  • Be a role model for your child – show them that having difficult feelings is part of everyday life & show them how to deal with them (e.g., “I’m feeling really tired and I think I need to have an early night.”)
  • Try to understand the meaning behind your child’s behaviour and respond accordingly
  • Make talking to your child about feelings a normal part of every day, life by reinforcing the message, “it’s ok to feel a range of emotions both positive and negative”. You can do this by naming feelings in yourself and others and encouraging your child to do the same
  • Encourage your child to express his or her emotions in healthy ways, such as talking about sad feelings or saying why they may be feeling angry and helping them to become calm (e.g., letting their anger out in a safe manner) and move on to more pleasant activities
  • Explicitly teach your child to express themselves in an assertive manner as opposed to an aggressive manner when faced with a negative emotion

Teachers can assist children dealing with emotional pain and ensure a safe learning environment by reflecting periodically on the following questions:
  • Does every child feel comfortable to share their feelings in my class or with me?
  • Do they feel, they can make mistakes and they wouldn’t be shamed?
  • Are they confident enough to take risks that will accelerate their learning?
  • Have I built a culture of mutual respect so that the children support each other in their learning?

(For the teachers who have responded with a ‘yes’ to all the above questions kudos to you, you really are a rockstar for your learners. For those who have responded with a mix of ‘yes/no’, I respect your honesty, and for the ones who responded with a ‘no’, it’s ok too, because you’re making an effort by reading articles such as these)

I’d like to conclude by quoting Rita Pierson, “EVERY CHILD NEEDS A CHAMPION” and this is even more true for a child dealing with emotional pain. Let’s attempt to become these CHAMPIONS by creating significant and safe learning environments, starting with building significant relationships with children whose lives we touch.

Written by Radhika Bhatt, Psychologist
JBCN International School, Oshiwara

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Posted on: Saturday,2019,Mar,Sat