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Distance Learning—Dealing With the Emotional Outbursts

Children's emotional intensity: a discussion with Trevor Tebbs, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

Home learning has suddenly landed at the center of daily modus operandi for many. If you weren't already familiar with the ins-and-outs of distance learning—not to mention the mind-state—you were caught off guard. Additionally, you may be noticing an increase in your children's emotional intensity around the household, as well as your own.

All the stress occurring from the plethora of sudden changes upon… well, everyone, fans the fires. You may be wondering: What next? It looks like we are going to be in this environment for a while, so self-regulation will be key. Let's look closer.

There are different types of intensity, as well as different levels at which everyone experiences it. This is natural. There is also a myriad of responses to intensity—whether it's our own or another's. Add to that the positive and negative sides of this coin. In this discussion, we will encounter each of these elements. So, with a headful of thoughts on the topic, I have returned to a discussion I began six years ago with Dr. Trevor Tebbs.

Trained in both the U.K. and the U.S., Dr. Tebbs is now an educational consultant who specializes in the holistic assessment of children. He is also the founder of a strength-based, computer-aided system for collecting and managing rich data, called Chandelier. He is a visiting professor at the Institute of Gifted Children in Ukraine and has recently been invited to serve as a board member for the Junior Academy of Science.[1]

As a veteran educator, his experience has included teaching in English elementary schools and special schools for children struggling with behavioral problems or severe cognitive and physical disabilities. On our side of the Atlantic, he served as Assistant Director of the University of Connecticut (UConn) Honors Program. As a professor in higher education, he has taught a diversity of courses, including Educational Psychology, Arthurian Myth, Art Education, Critical Thinking, and Curriculum Development.

Back in 2014, Dr. Tebbs and I pursued various elements and discussion of parenting gifted and talented children. You may wish to check out the series of three posts that began with: "Gifted Learners—New Holistic Methodology and Tech." I thought, given Tebbs's experience with school-age children, he would make a great resource for this post.

Elevated Levels of Intensity

"To state the obvious, children can be intense!" Tebbs offered as we kicked off the dialogue. "However, the fact is," he continued, "neither every child nor his or her parents respond to whatever life presents day-by-day with the same intensity." He went on, adding that "While most human beings experience intensity at various times and in various ways, some young people are characterized by the potential for elevated levels of intensity specific to the following capacities:

1. Intellect—such as with the insatiable love of learning

2. Emotionas an unusual capacity to care

3. Imaginationa vivid imagination

4. Psychomotor—seemingly endless energy

5. Sensuality—learning through the senses

While all "intensities" may be at play at normal or elevated levels, whether at home or school, of particular concern is the light and dark side of emotional intensity. It may be observed at the best and worst of times. It may be evident when a child is quietly and clearly absorbed in reading an interesting book while curled up on the couch. On the other hand, the whole household might become quickly aware of it when a highly able young person is shaking with frustration and tears upon receipt of the next package of already-mastered science or English language homework to be completed for submitting in the morning. It may also be apparent when a child at one moment is introspectively and lovingly stroking the cat, only to engage a moment later in a deep lament for all the sick people—like Grandma—dying in the hospital, unable to say goodbye to their families."

Though emotional intensity at one level can be anticipated and regarded as normal, we moved the conversation into more troubling zones. "When combined with other elements associated with school-aged children," Tebbs explained, "such as dysfunctional perfectionism, fear of failure, procrastination, anxiety, depression, and anhedonia, presentations of emotional intensity by young people may elicit unusually intense reactions, misunderstandings and anxiety in parents, and unwitting, but potentially detrimental action, by school faculty."

In any household, parents can easily be swept away not only by a child's fearful response to a new schedule, routine, or assignment but also their own fear while trying to juggle just one more thing during these hectic times (particularly these days, as we experience the COVID-19 pandemic, which can feel unprecedented... and is!). For this reason, many of us may find our repertoire of working solutions normally relied upon daily, and most of which kick in habitually keeping us afloat, quite inadequate. Instead, we head into a soup of sudden and extraordinary anxieties de jour. These may include concerns over family health, employment, financial affairs, and the ins and outs of full-time distance learning, spelling out a major league discombobulation.

It's not surprising we may be hearing emotional landmines setting off throughout the day. Because reactions are triggering in milliseconds and under your radar, they are difficult to control. So, what do you do?

Enter: Personality Needs

Our talk brought us to personality—e.g., specific ramifications based on personality needs, reactions, and a parental response allowing for whether your child is an introvert or extravert. And what happens when there is a clash of types?

Tebbs explains, "If the family unit is comprised of a mix of extraverts, introverts, thinkers, and feelers, the dynamics may be exceptionally difficult to negotiate down to more harmonious—healthy—productive levels of interaction. Without a willingness to understand why children are finding it hard to engage in school-related projects, parents may, unwittingly, complicate an already complicated situation."

Add periods of drawn-out tensions and resistance, fears of flubbing up—especially for young students experiencing the negatives of perfectionism—parental fears over their own inexperience with home learning, and, as I mentioned earlier, other various nuanced personality traits they find themselves trying to manipulate, and you have a recipe for a lot of stress. No wonder emotions are firing off all over the place.

Tebbs alludes to an extravert as "characterized by a pressing preference to work with a group." Extraverts need people in order to realize optional functioning. They like working with friends, their emotional well-being is, to a large extent, nourished by sharing the company of others, either by simply talking, by being active, or by exploring new ideas. For them, being confined in a house is akin to being imprisoned. Consider the tensions and misunderstandings that may arise when the unquestionably committed and deeply caring teacher, who is doing his or her professional best to provide learning materials online, hopes to receive work completed in a certain time frame. Consider the palpable emotionally charged dynamics when bewildered parents receive inquiries from school as to whether they need help monitoring the activities of one or more of their children. This kind of scenario is thwarted with opportunities for angry discourse between all family members, especially if parents are themselves operating under stressful employment-related conditions."

Turning toward introversion, Tebbs explains, "Introversion, often in conjunction with Intuition, Feeling, and Perceiving (INFP), is a personality type often associated with the thoughtful, imaginative, creative child. Princess Diana, John Lennon, Mia Farrow, J.K. Rowlings, Vincent Van Gogh, and Edgar Allan Poe provide good adult examples of this personality type. Approximately 65 percent of children who visit my office fit into this category. Typically they represent a group of young people who find it difficult to function comfortably in a learning environment where group work is encouraged by faculty likely to be highly interactive and proactive 'ESFJ' types[2], i.e., Extraverted, Sensing, Feeling, and Judging. Recent studies related to the influence of teacher personality on the educational process show extraversion correlates with success. This implies the prevailing and perfectly understandable interest of an extraverted teacher is the degree to which his or her students successfully complete their schoolwork—regardless of whether it is initiated in the classroom or distributed online.

"Emotional intensity may be encountered in both extraverts and introverts. However, while the extravert might openly demonstrate his or her reaction to the stress of distance learning by way of unusual and conspicuously poor behavior, the introvert might do whatever it takes to conceal the frustrations with which she or he is grappling.

"A deeply sensitive child, perhaps a feeler, desperate to avoid conflict in any relationship normally experienced at home or school, is likely to bear the burden at his or her own expense, become seriously withdrawn, procrastinate, shut off the world by retreating to the quietest place in the house to read and/or sleep. Even with immediate concerns relating to school closings and a different interpretation of teaching and learning uppermost in the minds of young introverts, more deeply emotional children will likely be aware and moved by what they been told or have learned tacitly about the world beyond their own home.

"Experiencing an intuitive sense of things 'not being right,' even the very young pre-school child can worry incessantly about a surprisingly wide range of issues. The list could include personal questions, e.g., who is going to feed grandma's fish if she goes to the hospital, through to matters pertinent to human survival, e.g., the effects of global warming. While most children, in deference to those in authority, accept and adapt to a range of conditions and circumstances, it probably will be more difficult for some children, especially for a prolonged and undefined period of time."

What does all this mean for you? If your child's emotional intensity, as well as the household's, has currently elevated, a bit of understanding can go a long way. Focusing your attention on what Dr. Tebbs refers to as the "whys and wherefores"—by understanding the whole child's physical, mental, and spiritual needs (I mean this last part nondenominationally) and their personality type, it is possible to learn from these and therefore carefully self-regulate behaviors with alternate, more effective strategies and approaches, which will help modify potentially negative dynamics and thus achieve more positive days ahead.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, where we will discuss both the introvert's and extravert's needs in today's scenario and some ways you can start to deliver relief and achieve results.


[1] Under the auspices of UNESCO

[2] See: Myers-Briggs Personality Type

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