Van Beek: Bumpy roads towards normal
On our journey back to the land of “normal,” it is natural to assume that we will encounter new challenges. We will likely respond in our usual pre-pandemic manner, however, some of these new situations and events may be unanticipated responses from others, pushing us well beyond our comfort zone.
The area uncertainty least expected is with our children. We assume that our explanations of what has occurred over the past two years are sufficient, but what we often forget is that children don’t have the same level of experience, thus perspective, that we do, and may interpret our “logical” explanations quite differently.
Even as adults we know that we’ve just emerged from the land of crazy and are trying to act like it’s no big deal … but it is. And while we are doing a fairly good job at hiding our insecurities about the uncertainty of what’s to come, our kids are not so great at hiding their emotions and will frequently act out in very negative ways to express their confusion and fear.
We are seeing it in the schools. When children are away from home, outside of their ultimate field of safety, they may display physical responses to their fear. Some will feel ill, and others will have their primal instincts of fight or flight kick in, and behavior that is normally out of character may surface.
Some of this behavior comes from the highly reduced lack of social contact over the past two years. Add to that, the inability of children to read social cues, which generally come from facial expressions, which have been hidden behind masks. The result is that we have children who, depending on their age, may have never had the opportunity to acquire those skills, and for the older ones, they have simply forgotten how to interact in person. These are the ages where even a week seems like an eternity, and two years is a huge percentage of their lifetime.
The subtleties of polite society are not adequately learned online and via cell phone texts. How often do we see a text that seems insulting, only to discover that the sender was simply being their usual funny self? In person, you would have laughed, but via text, you are unsure of their intent. Should you invite them over for dinner or never speak to them again … who knows?
But at least you have some perspective from which to draw an appropriate conclusion. Children don’t have the skills to make those same determinations. Suddenly, what was normally a silly interaction becomes a serious verbal assault, which can turn physical.
Our office has received an unusual increase in calls from schools to help mediate and, at times, remove students who are misbehaving at levels that can potentially endanger themselves or other children, and at the very least, are disruptive and disrespectful to those within the classroom and around the campus.
These are normally good kids, but their behavior has become unmanageable. When questioned, they often can’t explain why they are reacting as they are. There is a sense of hurt, fear, and an inability to appropriately display their emotions. Proper behavior in a large social setting seems to be lost to them, and they are not certain how to react.
We all experience these same emotions, but we’ve learned over time … throughout our school years, how to respond in ways that produce positive reactions. Circumstances have taken two years of social learning away from our children. In addition, there is the pressure to catch up with academics, and beyond that, to excel.
Yet, schools teach more than academics; they teach us the vital skills of existing and interacting in society. How do we get what we want? We learn not to take it, even though that may be our primal instinct.
Instead, we learn how to ask politely, receive a response, and then proceed accordingly … earn the money (if it is an item), or reach a level of achievement (when you finish your homework, you can go out to play — or when you’ve finished your chores, you may go purchase that new video game). There are standards that we all must meet to get the goodies we want.
If we want friendships, we must develop our empathy and recognize that things worthwhile generally require a degree of give-and-take. Yet, we are happy to do it because the reward is a closeness that develops between us and the people we care about.
The bottom line is that our children may appear to be back to “normal,” but some are secretly hiding their insecurities because they think everyone else is fine and something must be wrong with them. Burying those feelings never works because they will always emerge, often at the most difficult times.
When that occurs, their behavior can cause situations to develop that may create unretrievable consequences. A phone call to the Sheriff’s Office about negative behavior is never a good thing.
When I see your children, I would like it to be at a fun community event, not in the back of a police car.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.