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:
- Be purposeful in guiding your child's emotional life. Focus intentionally on his emotional needs. These needs are just as important as his cognitive, physical and spiritual needs.
- Build a strong bond by spending quality time with your child. Experts agree that parents who interact regularly with their children — beginning in infancy — develop stronger bonds.
- Stay emotionally in tune. Connect with your child on an emotional level. Attempt to understand what she is feeling. When she is happy, be happy for her; when she is sad, cry with her.
- Model healthy emotional relating. Your children will mimic the way you handle emotions and the way you relate to others. By managing your own emotions in a positive way, your children will learn to do so as well.
- Teach children how to handle negative emotions. Doing this well does not come naturally. Children need to be taught how to handle defeat, deal with conflict or be angry in a healthy way. Children who are taught these skills early are better able to handle negative feelings as adults.
Development of Emotions
Infants do not have the full repertoire of emotions at birth. Various emotions emerge in the following order:
- At birth, infants experience only simple emotional states such as distress, contentment and interest.
- Two to four months: Evidence of happiness appears as seen in a baby's "social smile."
- Four to six months: Basic emotions emerge, including fear, excitement, anger, disgust, surprise, joy and sadness.
- Six to 18 months: Basic emotions continue to develop and are expressed in broader ways by the child.
- Eighteen to 24 months: Self-conscious emotions develop, such as guilt, embarrassment and pride.
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:
- Respond more often and more quickly to their infant's cries.
- Guess correctly what their child needs when he cries.
- Respond in a positive way to their child.
- Spend more time interacting with their child.
The key to helping your child feel understood is to acknowledge his feelings. Follow these steps to get more in tune with your child:
- Label the feeling: For younger children, the simpler label you offer the better. Use words like mad, happy, sad and scared. For older children, more specific words help them to pinpoint the exact emotion: disappointed, worried and embarrassed.
- State the reason for the feeling. Make your best guess as to why your child feels as he does. For example, say, "It looks like you're mad because Mom said you can't have dessert today."
- Don't judge your child. Your child needs to know that it is okay to express emotion. However, at times you may need to teach your child how to express his feelings in ways that are healthy and not hurtful to others.
Do's and Don'ts
- Support your child. Give physical support (hugs, kisses) and verbal support by acknowledging your child's feelings.
- Help your child understand why she is upset. Help her to connect feelings with experiences. Ask open-ended questions about what caused the anger, sadness, fear, etc.
- Give your child space. She may need to be taken out of the upsetting situation briefly to find a way to calm down.
- Encourage your child to use words to express her feelings. These should be words used to describe what your child feels rather than words used to hurt others.
- Teach your child empathy. When your child is angry or sad, remind her that others often feel the same way. Help her think of ways she might help someone if they were feeling the same emotion. She will develop empathy for others and may find ways to help herself in the process.
- Don't try to fix it all. Allow your child to find ways to problem-solve and calm herself. She may need time to figure out the best way to do so.
- Don't bribe your child to get her to stop feeling upset. You don't want to short-circuit your child's experience. She needs to learn how to manage her feelings over the long term.
- Don't distract your child from her feelings. By acting as if nothing has happened or avoiding negative feelings, we prevent children from learning how to deal with them properly.
- Don't punish your child. Scolding a child for experiencing negative feelings will not only make her feel worse but it will discourage her from having those feelings — or being open about them. Instead of discouraging the experience of these emotions, it is crucial to encourage the proper expression of them.
- Don't allow your child to hurt others with their negative feelings. Children can say insulting things and, at times, physically hurt others when upset. Teach your child that it is never okay to harm others.
Connecting 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.
A Good Emotional Role Model
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.