There’s a part of my Storytelling show where I pretend to fall asleep on the floor in the front of the children. Often, this totally freaks my core audience of 4-8 year olds, despite my comedy snoring.
Depending on age, group, mood etc., they either shout and scream at me to wake up (in a way that starts off playfully but if I push the duration, veers into slight desperation), shyly approach and prod me, or they fall silent and look to their adults to sort out this unexpected turn of events. There is always the laughter of relief when I wake up.
I think it’s because they are not used to it happening. It doesn’t fall into their palette of experience, so to speak. They don't usually see a person that they have come to believe is ‘in charge’ of proceedings, and that they have decided to trust, suddenly dropping out of the picture.
Of course I am playing and they understand that they are in a safe place; but I see a much more serious version of this confusion when a child has to encounter an adult experiencing genuine sadness. I’m not talking about a shared or social sadness, such as at a funeral, but something personal and singular to someone they see as a reliable source of make-everything-rightness.
We know that it’s upsetting for a child to see someone they rely on suddenly display signs of vulnerability, and it’s important that they learn the lesson that human emotions are many and varied. They happen to the grown-ups in their lives as well as themselves. However, when we ourselves are in the depths of despair, or frustration, or anger or any of the more negative emotions from which we would ordinarily want to protect our children, it’s easy to forget the impact this has on them. We may not even be aware that a child has witnessed our outburst. These words may even trigger a memory from your own childhood.
So, when things get tough, try and find the strength in a calm place to explain to your children what is going on - honestly. It’s a lot tougher for them if you don’t.