Mark and Jenny are about to have their first child. They have done everything they can to prepare for their new infant. To care for their baby's physical needs, they have diapers, formula and outfits in all sizes. To stimulate their baby cognitively, they have colorful toys and classical music. They also finally finished childbirth classes. They are ready!
But are they? Mark and Jenny are forgetting one important aspect of their baby's life – his emotional development. It's easy to overlook this important area. But by following these tips, you and other parents like Mark and Jenny can guide your children into an emotionally healthy future:
Infants do not have the full repertoire of emotions at birth. Various emotions emerge in the following order:
According to child development expert Mary Ainsworth, parents who are strongly bonded to their children share certain characteristics. When their children are infants, these parents tend to:
The key to helping your child feel understood is to acknowledge his feelings. Follow these steps to get more in tune with your child:
To connect with our children, we must understand their emotions and experience those emotions with them. Let's see how one mother, Sheri, spent her morning connecting with her 5-year-old son, Nicholas.
7 a.m. — Nicholas wakes up screaming. Sheri runs to Nicholas and holds him tight. "You sound scared. What's wrong?" she asks. But Nicholas doesn't respond; he just cries. Sheri continues to hold him until he calms down, saying, "Whatever it is, you're really sad. I'm here for you." Soon, Nicholas stops crying and asks for breakfast.
What Sheri did right: Sheri acknowledged Nicholas's feelings. Instead of telling Nicholas to stop crying, Sheri labeled Nicholas's feeling and allowed him the chance to express that feeling. Nicholas sensed that it was okay to be sad and scared. Nicholas will likely feel free to express these feelings in the future.
9 a.m. — Nicholas is watching his favorite cartoon and has turned up the volume to an excruciating pitch. He laughs and dances while the characters sing. Sheri joins in and dances alongside him. She hugs him and then goes back to sweeping the kitchen.
What Sheri did right: Sheri could have scolded Nicholas for turning up the television or she could have just ignored him. Instead, Sheri recognized Nicholas's happiness and she joined him in it. This short interaction strengthens their bond. Nicholas feels loved and understood.
11 a.m. — Nicholas is playing with a friend, Jacob. Jacob pushes Nicholas off his bike, and Nicholas pushes him back. Sheri steps in and tells Nicholas, "It's not okay to hit Jacob. That hurts." "But he pushed me first," says Nicholas. Sheri tells Jacob the same and takes Nicholas aside. She tells him, "Nicholas, I know you're mad. It upsets you when Jacob pushes you. You need to tell him not to push because pushing hurts."
What Sheri did right: Sheri focused on Nicholas's negative behavior while validating his feelings. She connected with Nicholas by letting him know that it was okay to experience anger but not to hurt others.
One of the most important ways in which children learn about healthy (and unhealthy) emotional expression is by observation. Basically, they do what they see. Let's look at what the following two children learned by observing their parents' behavior.
The story of Michael:
Michael comes home from work, eats dinner with the family and then sits down to watch TV. He growls at Hannah, 8 years old, when she stands in front of the TV while trying to tell him something. He later gets frustrated when his satellite stops working and the TV goes blank. He bangs on the TV set, throws the remote on the floor and stomps off to bed.
The next day, Michael observes Hannah becoming upset because she can't find a piece to her favorite puzzle. After looking briefly, she gives up and throws the remaining pieces onto the floor. Michael scolds her for "giving up too fast" and for having a "bad temper."
The story of John:
John comes home from work, eats dinner with the family and sits down to watch TV. When his daughter, 8-year-old Sarah, asks him a question during the climax of his favorite show, he asks her to wait until the commercial. During the commercial he patiently answers Sarah's question.
When John's satellite goes on the blink, he becomes frustrated and mutters aloud, "I get so mad at this thing. It never works. Let's see if I can fix it." He continues to narrate each move he makes while fixing the satellite, unaware that Sarah is listening.
The next day he witnesses Sarah trying to put a puzzle together. He notices that she is quietly talking herself through finding the right pieces, saying, "I can't find where this piece goes. I'm so mad. Let's try the next one."
Like John, make sure you manage your emotions in a way you'd like to see repeated by your child.