Masking emotions and sensitive children
During a recent Adoption Support Fund assessment, I met a lovely, playful family with a seven year old adopted son. During the music therapy element of the assessment, the family played, laughed and joked together; most often, working well together as a team. Henry presented in a calm way with me, the assessing therapist. His school teachers described a sometimes anxious boy but also said that he was achieving well and engaging in all areas of the curriculum.
Once the music therapy assessment was over, Henry returned to class and I spent some time talking to his parents about why they felt an assessment was needed. The description of Henry given by his parents was striking – at home, he was aggressive and angry. He found it difficult to cooperate with boundaries and family activities such as meal times or going for walks were sometimes impossible. Henry seemed to be presenting many of the signs of Masking or After School Restraint Collapse (ASRC), a term first coined by psychotherapist, Andrea Nair.
The chances are that most parents will have experienced this with their child at some point during school life. Picking your child up to wonderful teacher (or childcare) comments and being faced with aggression, crying, defiance or a full blow meltdown once you get home can be hard to handle for both parents and child – especially when it happens many times during the week. Adoption UK (www.adoptionuk.org) found that many parents with children with additional needs will experience ASRC, as well as those children with a more ‘normal’ development. The pressure on children of all ages to sit still, listen, process instructions, manage peer relationships and self regulate can be exhausting, not to mention if they are tired or hungry as well. Returning home to their safe space, a child can let off the pent up energy, perhaps subconsciously knowing that their parents will pick up the pieces.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Child (2003), Elaine Aron describes how some children (and adults) are born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and be affected by it. The positive side of these sensitive children is that they are often more empathetic, creative and conscientious than others. The down side is that the fun party you had planned for them or the regular occurrence of school contains too many stimulus and therefore overwhelms them. Around 20% of the general population is considered highly sensitive so it is by no means an unusual personality type (Aron, 2003). Within this group, there is a good mix of both introvert and extrovert personalities and although sensitive people react more extremely to sensory information, there is no evidence of them having ‘better’ senses. Aron proposes that sensitive brains process sensory information more thoroughly and are affected by pain, medication and stimulus in an increased way.
Davis (1995) and Garside and Kllimes-Dougan (2002) found that there are gender differences in how children mask their emotions. In both studies, it was noticed that boys were more likely to display negative emotions when compared to girls of the same age. Both studies proposed the theory that this was due to social expectation and that it was more acceptable for boys to display anger and sadness, with girls expected to be happier and cooperative. When thinking about children with learning difficulties, Cook et al (2018) used questionnaires with young adolescent girls with autism. Their research showed that the girls were very concerned with social structures and making friends and therefore more adept at masking their autism. Although this is directly linked to emotional masking in school children, it highlights the conscious decision that children often make to fit it with peers, and the possible emotional strain this has upon them.
Emotional regulation plays a key part in the development of child, and a healthy sense of regulation in adulthood supports positive relationships and wellbeing. In young children, a sense of co-regulation needs to be fostered before a child can actively manage their emotions. With this in mind, how the adults around the child react to high levels of sensory information will feed in to how the child reacts in similar situations. As a parent it is important to model positive managing of emotions – and this doesn’t mean we put on a happy face and pretend it isn’t happening! What it does mean is that we name the emotions we feel in situations, and show how best to deal with them. For example, if your child is worried about a big family party, help them with strategies to cope with the over stimulation. This could be having a sign that means they need some physical closeness or timeout – and for the parent to follow these actions through so the child understands they have the support that they need. Murray et al (2015) suggested that parents can co-regulate emotions with their children through support, coaching and modelling. This will help the child to “understand, express and modulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviours”. When a child has conscious control over their thoughts and feelings, they feel regulated, and this in turn helps them to concentrate and engage in activities and relationships in a meaningful way.
When a child is in an educational setting, the teacher takes the role of the co-regulator. Sutton (2004) studied the effect of emotional regulation on teachers and their performance as educators. Most teachers stated that if they are successful in managing their emotions, their class have a better educational experience – and they felt like were more likely to conform to the idealised image of a ‘good teacher’. In turn, if children are responded to in an attuned way (ie, in line with their own emotional needs) they are more likely to creative positive attachments and trust adults. Raby et al (2015) states that learning regulation through our parents and teachers supports the child to greater success both academically and socially.
So, how can we help those highly sensitive children in school and at home?
· When collecting your child from school or childcare, always offer a smile and a hug – even if you day hasn’t gone to plan.
· Help your child to make a trusting relationship with a key adult in school, someone they know will listen and care for them.
· Avoid lots of questions on the way home from school – maybe ask one or two to gauge their mood and work from there.
· Keep in mind your child’s basic needs: food, tiredness or perhaps needing the toilet (some children do not like to use the school bathroom and this can cause massive sensory issues at home time). Once these needs have been met, homework and chatting will be easier.
· Give your child time to decompress once they return home – a craft activity, some quiet reading, lego or music making – whatever they enjoy doing.
· Be consistent – in your routines, in your approach to your child, in how you manage yours and your child’s emotions.
· And, as Adoption UK quite rightly state, make sure you look after yourself as a parent. Your wellbeing is at the heart of your family’s so find ways to look after your emotions and health. Dealing with a sensitive child and regular meltdowns takes a lot of emotional space and can be physically exhausting so, as well as keeping your child in mind, keep yourself there too.
Aron, E.N (2003). The Highly Sensitive Child. Thorsons: London
Cook, A., Ogden, J. & Winstone, N. (2018) Friendship motivations, challenges and the role of masking for girls with autism in contrasting school settings. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 33:3, 302-315
Davis, T. L. (1995). Gender differences in masking negative emotions: Ability or motivation? Developmental Psychology, 31(4), 660–667
Garside, R. B., & Klimes-Dougan, B. (2002). Socialization of discrete negative emotions: Gender differences and links with psychological distress. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 47(3-4), 115–128
Murray, D. W., Rosanbalm, K. D., Christopoulos, C., & Hamoudi, A. (2015). Self-regulation and toxic stress: Foundations for understanding self-regulation from an applied developmental perspective. (OPRE Report 2015-21). Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Nair, A (2020). https://blog.schoolnotices.co.uk/7-ways-to-help-your-child-handle-after-school-restraint-collapse/ First published 8th January, 2020, downloaded, 11th December, 2020.
Raby, L.K., Roisman, G.L., Fraley, C.R. & Simpson, J.A. (2015). The enduring predictive significance of early maternal sensitivity: social and academic competence through age 32 years. Journal of Child Development, 86(3): 695-708
Sutton, R.E. (2004). Emotional regulation goals and strategies of teachers. Society of Psychological Education 7, 379–398.