The other day I was having a conversation with another mom about a kid (let’s call her Madison) who is having a really hard time right now.  Totally sweet girl — who at home is kind and thoughtful — and who really, really wants to make some friends.  When she gets to school, though, she becomes a hot mess.  Rivers of tears, kicking trashcans, tearing up paper, shouting, stomping – – every behavior that makes every parent cringe. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Why on earth can’t this child calm down and play nicely?  Good family. Involved-but-not-overly-involved-parents.  Seems to be doing fine with the academics.  What is going on?

I did a little hunting and uncovered the dirty little secret that nobody was talking about:  an outbreak of “mean girl” was running rampant in her 3rd grade classroom.  It was mostly silent (you know how girls can do that that, right?) and it was really difficult to point any specific girl or incident that was the problem.  But boy, there was a problem.  An overwhelming feeling of nastiness, fear and self-loathing was quietly hovering over this group of children all day, every day.  The rest of the class silently endured it; but my girl Madison could not.  It was unbearable for her to have to sit in this environment. And so, she blew up.

As I was thinking about Madison, suddenly I realized that she reminded me of the bedtime story I had read to my son the night before, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.  Madison was an Emotional Lorax.  The Lorax spoke for the trees, Madison spoke for the feelings.  Loraxes are not pleasant- – but they are necessary.

Remember the story?  The Lorax was not some sweet little fuzzy lovey that you wanted to cuddle.  He was obnoxious.  He showed up at the most inconvenient times,  had this annoying voice, and would squawk on and on about how things were not right.  In the story, the character of The Lorax is not someone who was beloved, but someone to be avoided.

Being an Emotional Lorax can feel the same way.  Emotional Lorax kids instinctively know, deep down in their bones, when a situation is not right, and they feel compelled to voice that feeling.  But, lacking the age and social wisdom of the old furry brownish guy, they use actions instead of using words.  Enter the vicious cycle.  Emotional Lorax kids know something ain’t right, acts out to express the feeling, becomes socially ostracized because of acting out, feelings get worse, actions get worse, repeat.  Next thing you know, the parents are getting dragged into team meetings at school where it’s suggested that maybe the kid has ADHD, or perhaps family therapy is in order.  Oy.

Truth is, kids act out to show their distress for lots of reasons.  When I’m working with a kid who is doing something that doesn’t match expectations, it’s always a mystery wanting to be solved.  As humans, we like to be able to name and label things.  As busy adults, we prefer to give names and labels that offer quick fixes (cue the family therapist and educational testing, please). 

But Emotional Lorax kids don’t let us off the hook so easily.  They are responding to larger feelings of emotional unrest.  Just like the environmental issues addressed in The Lorax, these are not easily solved.  Quelling a mean girl outbreak is like stomping out Ebola- possible, but very difficult and requires many resources.  Some schools struggle with academic apathy, teacher moral, fair testing practices, or bullying.  Some families struggle with passive aggressive behaviors,  name calling, or neglect (yes, this can happen very easily in families, too).  The underlying stress in a marriage that Mom and Dad are trying so hard to not let affect the kids, well, sometimes Loraxes pick up and voice exactly what the parents are trying to keep hush hush.  These are hard things to admit and even harder to fix.  But for an Emotional Lorax, they are also impossible to ignore. 

Daunted by the situation, most people turn a blind eye. But an Emotional Lorax? She is going to keep on swanking and carrying on.

{{I should note, that it’s not like this is something a person grows out of. There are adult Emotional Loraxes, too.  They are less obvious, because as adults we can make choices to remove ourselves from toxic situations.  Kids can’t do that.  But that one office mate who shoots of his mouth in the middle of a tense meeting? Yeah, he’s one of ’em.}}

Maybe you know a kid who fits this description.  Or maybe you do (ever quit a job in a blaze of glory because you just couldn’t stand the tension?) Let’s go through a check list. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Exaggerated reactions and feelings to seemingly small events
  • Expressed feelings of being overwhelmed, depressed or angry
  •  The idea of something being “not fair” or “not making sense” comes up a lot
  • Everything listed above can’t be explained in some other way (learning issues, on-set of puberty, etc.) and/ or the person can behave/ feel differently in different situations.
  • When you look at it honestly, do you see that things are messed up?

The last one is the most important.  If something is messed up but you don’t want to deal with it because it’s really inconvenient– or because trying to make a change might be painful –that’s your tell.

If you think this is starting to sound very familiar, the question becomes: what to do?  

Dr. Seuss told us that a tough situation won’t get any better unless someone like you cares an awful lot.  That’s a good starting point.  Pay attention to the upset being expressed, and acknowledge that the situation is what it is.  One of the worst parts of being an Emotional Lorax is feeling slightly crazy because nobody else is talking about what’s going on.  Shining some light can be a huge gift. 

Then, be prepared to make some changes.  Start having conversations, help bring forward the problem, and try to think of possible solutions.  Become a Lorax yourself and start being a voice. It’s not a solution, but it’s a start- and that is often the hardest part.

(See how I made that rhyme?  Sorry- couldn’t resist.)