What did you do today?

May 8, 2017

It is an all too common scenario for parents; your child comes home from school and you ask,
“What did you do today?” And what do you get? A pair of doe eyes staring back at you as if you
were the headlights on a large tractor trailer bombing down the highway in their direction. There
is also the classic, “Tell me what is wrong?” that often results in hands flailing in the air with a firm,
“NOTHING” that is less than congruent with the obviously twisted face of upset displayed upon
your child’s usually loving face. Why does this happen with kids? It can be for a number of reasons
including the natural need for independence between an adolescent and a parent, difficulty with
expressive communication, exhaustion after a long school day or emotional episode, deficits in
fluid reasoning whereby your child struggles to think analytically about abstract concepts such as
emotion and experiences, or even the need to keep you asking about the situation so that your
child can subconsciously engage in you a game of “if I play hard to get, will you give me more
attention?”
However, there is often an overlooked reason for your student’s limited response to questions
pertaining to his or her feelings or experiences, and that is alexithymia, or emotional blindness.
About 10 percent of the typically developing population experiences alexithymia, which is a
difficulty in recognizing, identifying, and articulating one’s emotions. The rate of alexithymia
among those with learning disabilities and ADHD is significantly higher. Although we typically
focus on a learning disabled student’s academic struggles, this little known symptom can lead to
issues with emotional regulation and friendship skills in children and adolescents. In fact, there is a
strong relationship between learning disabilities, alexithymia, and socially maladaptive behavior in
the teen and early adult years, such as aggression, severe reactions to emotional situations, and
high-risk behaviors. Similarly, individuals with learning disabilities and ADHD can experience
dyslexithymia, which is using the wrong word to describe how one is feeling. A student may say
they feel angry, when in reality they are anxious or afraid.
What can parents do? There are a few important things for parents to keep in mind. First,
alexithymia presents itself differently. Whereas some individuals will be hypercommunicative,
others will be hypocommunicative, i.e., the doe in the head lights. So, communicating with your
therapist or ECS staff about how your child responds at school will help you gain a clearer picture
of your child’s communication style when upset. Second, just as it is important for the parent to be
the child’s learning coach at home, it is equally important for parents to support the child’s continued
learning of emotional recognition and regulation while at home. At ECS, we approach this
through a multitiered approach where students learn to monitor how they are feeling throughout
the day (green light, yellow light, or red light). They are also learning to expand their emotional
vocabulary so that they go beyond feeling mad or bad, to learning more words to describe emotions,
when those emotions might present themselves, and how those emotions might manifest
themselves physically. Emotional maturity is developed through social feedback. For typical kids,
experiencing peer response may be enough. However, your child may need to have conversations
with you about how something has made you feel and what the word for that feeling is. Also,
when you are out at the park or a restaurant with your child, spend a few minutes from time to time
observing others’ interactions and help your child build perspective taking by asking them how
they think someone might be feeling and what manifestations or interactions led to their presumption.
Provide feedback on their accuracy, with supporting observations.
Be your child’s Sherpa as he or she takes an expedition on the unchartered territory of emotions.
Narrate your emotional experiences as it relates to traffic frustration, stubbing your toe, the
neighbor upsetting you, and a friend hurting your feelings. Narrate your observations when out
and about. Your child’s vocabulary, expressive communication, reasoning skills, and emotional
development will thank you for the effort.