The Big Emotions of Little Ones
Updated: Mar 30
Children’s emotional development is a critical aspect of their overall maturation with lifelong consequences. A child’s social-emotional development during the first 5 years of life will affect their ability to function in school, respond to stress, adapt to change, persist in challenging situations, and form meaningful relationships throughout their life. And yet, there is often an emphasis on promoting children’s cognitive growth in the early years and limited attention to strengthening their capacity to manage emotions.
Every parent wishes to raise their child to be well adjusted, happy, contributing members of society. An adult who enjoys meaningful relationships and fulfilling work undoubtedly has at their core a well-developed capacity for emotional regulation. This includes the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and understand emotions in others, and to manage strong emotions in a constructive way.
How do we support children in their first few years to develop the emotional regulation capacities necessary for success during the rest of their lives? During infancy, babies rely on sensitive and responsive caregiving to modulate their emotional states. Toddlers and preschoolers have more complex needs and learning to manage their emotions is one of the most challenging tasks of these early years. Those who are given the necessary support and tools to successfully accomplish this task will have a rich emotional repertoire and an equally large emotional vocabulary. They have developed the capacity to verbalize how they feel rather than “melting down” or “acting out,” and are also able to inhibit expressions of emotions that are inappropriate for the situation.
So what tools should we provide our children to help them manage their emotions and subsequently their behaviors? The emotional health of children is of course first and foremost tied to the daily experiences within their home environment and family dynamics. Beyond that, the following are some ways in which parents and caregivers can help to optimize their child’s social-emotional development:
1. Allow children to feel and express a full range of feelings, including negative feelings. This includes allowing our children to see us express a range of emotions that in a healthy manner. Remember there are no "good" or "bad" feelings. All emotions are valid and this doesn't necessarily mean that all behaviors are acceptable. For example, you can communicate to a child that feeling angry but hitting his sister is not an acceptable behavior.
2. Support children to reflect on their feelings and behaviors. Once the storm of emotions has settled, find a quiet moment to sit with your child. Help them to connect the dots for what took place; identify the link between their feelings, behaviors, and the consequences of those behaviors. Brainstorm together on better or alternative ways of handling a similar situation the next time around.
3. Allow children to express difficult feelings without jumping in to offer a solution or a distraction. Instead, simply let them know that you see what they are experiencing, e.g. “I can see that it makes you really frustrated when you have to wait a long time for a turn.”
Avoid minimizing feelings expressed by children. If a child expresses fear, worry, or hurt, they simply need to know that their feelings are valid. If we tell kids things such as “there is nothing to be scared of,” or “it’s ok,” we are giving them the message that their own true feelings are not to be trusted. Children need to know that everyone is entitled to their own feelings and reactions. Most importantly, do not distract kids when they are hurt or upset by offering an electronic device as a means of calming them down. This only removes a healthy opportunity for learning to self-regulate emotions and short-circuits their capacity for tolerating difficult feelings.
4. Remain unruffled in the face of the emotional storms your children experience and don’t feel personally responsible for having to prevent them or get them under control. Children go through various stages of separation and individuation with strong desires for doing things that are out of the range of their abilities or simply not an available option. There is no way to ensure that they will not become unglued at apparently trivial matters. The only thing to do is to remain calm and ride out the storm, allowing them to know that you are there for them as they work to recollect themselves.
5. Teach, practice, and model coping strategies. There are many strategies for coping with difficult feelings, such as taking a break, doing a physical activity, and deep breathing. Find a strategy that your child is more inclined to do and engage in a regular practice of it outside of challenging situations. Model using a coping strategy yourself in moments of frustration and reinforce any attempts your child makes to use a strategy to de-escalate.
6. It is tempting to use time-outs when our children express emotions or have behaviors that are over the top and unacceptable. However, it is in these very moments of anger, defiance, or limit testing that our children need our calm presence and guidance the most. Using a time-in instead of a time-out means making a choice to attune to the difficult feelings of the child in that moment in order to help them work through it. It is the simple act of sitting with your child and empathizing with how they feel, without changing your stance on the boundaries you’ve placed or the behaviors you have deemed unacceptable. It allows children to connect and feel that their needs are being considered, even if the ultimate outcome does not change.
The work of supporting children to develop their capacity for emotional regulation asks much of us as parents. It is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, as it requires for us to manage our own feelings of anger, hurt, frustration, disappointment, etc. in the best way possible. We have to be able to successfully manage our own emotions during points when our children seem determined to push our buttons until we reach a tipping point. If we can use our own tools for coping, remaining calm, and not taking things personally, we can build a solid foundation upon which our children can develop their own coping strategies effectively.