One of my children struggled with starting school. She got herself very stressed and worked up each morning, and couldn’t say goodbye. She held on to me, crying, I had to prise her off me to take her teachers hand. My immediate response was to be try and console her “but you’re going to love school! All your friends are here. And you teacher is so nice” I hugged her and spoke softly and really tried to connect with her and help her feel positive about going in to the classroom.
After the first week I was surprised to see her reluctance wasn’t improving. I started to tense up. I imagined judgemental looks coming from other parents. I didn’t want to be the one with the difficult kid in the class. By week two the encouragement had shifted to annoyance, and I went slightly harder “well you have to go in”, my farewells got a bit more abrupt. “You’re a soft touch” said my husband, “she’s riding you!” ‘Show her who is the boss” said another. ‘She needs consequences” came too. Her tears got worse and started earlier each day. I got more tense. Mornings became horrible. Tantrums started. I could suddenly sense it was all blowing up.
I turned to Google and entered ‘my child doesn’t want to go to school’, and up popped the concept of School Refusal. Huh, I thought, that’s a thing? School Refusal is surprisingly common for anxious kids. It isn’t a behaviour problem. Its anxiety based, a deep fear that feels very real to the poor child experiencing it. A light bulb went on in my head.
The next day, we talked in the car going to school, “school’s really scary, isn’t it?” I said. ‘Oh mum its so scary!” she replied. We talked about scary things for awhile, we talked about being frightened. When we got to the classroom, I knelt down “I know this is really scary. I get it.” Then we hugged and I waited for a good long moment. “But you’re also so brave. I don’t know another kid as brave as you, I’m so proud of that. We are going to remember that you can be Scared and Brave at the same time”. She whimpered a bit and we pondered being scared for a few more minutes. Then she walked up, and let her teacher take her hand. We stuck with the approach for months, and reinforced the same message again and again, its ok to be scared.
When I look back, I am so sad that I initially tried to distract her out of her feelings. I tried to make her push the fear aside and pretend she didn’t feel it. It only made things worse.
What she needed was acknowledgement. Acknowledgement that this horrible feeling was normal, was ok, was expected, and was handleable. Once her fear was acknowledged she was able to move on from it.
Being acknowledged helps you feel secure and accepted.
Its what we all want really.
The deepest human need is to connect and be heard. To be acknowledged.
Lack of acknowledgement is one of the biggest causes of marital tension. It is why teenagers are so frustrated when their parents talk at them, without asking their opinion first. It is when somebody only half listens to your concerns, and immediately adds their own filter on top. It is when your problems get dismissed as ‘first world problems’. Or when you tell someone you are sad, and they tell you to cheer up. When you tell them you are feeling low, and they try to fix it immediately. When you suffer trauma, and nobody seems to want to talk about it. Or when nobody seems to notice a job done well.
When you feel like you are not being acknowledged, you feel like you are not being seen. Not being heard. That you don’t matter. That in some way, who you are, and what you are doing is not valid.
If you are looking for better connections with people, with your partner, children, workmates, or anyone, actively acknowledge their reality. Listen properly. Don’t interrupt. Verbalise your appreciation. Learn to recognise emotions and pain in people, and don’t try to push them away for them. Let someone know you see them. That you understand them.
And acknowledgement is best served with a generous dose of empathy. When somebody expresses their sympathy with “poor you, you must feel terrible!’ it feels more like a gloat. It feels like they are observing and commenting on your pain from a distance. It feels alienating, and doesn’t bring you together. When they level with you, and say “I’m with you, this is horrible” they are letting you know you are in it together. It is a completely different acknowledgement of your reality.
We all want deeper connections. We all want to know we matter to others. We want others to know they matter to us.