Helping young children manage emotions
It is difficult to fully prepare for the rocky emotional world of a young child. Despite an adult’s most concerted efforts, one-year-olds may still bite, hit or throw things; two-year-olds still experience tantrums and yell “No!” and “Mine!”; three-year-olds still doddle and whine; and four-year-olds still act bossy and demanding. Even the most skilled adults may experience frustration and feelings of failure.
By age 5, many children have gained some of the skills necessary to handle strong feelings in socially appropriate ways. However, this growth will not happen automatically. Children need adult guidance, loving and patient care, clear and consistent limits and loads of practice. The time invested in teaching emotional skills early will ensure positive outcomes for children in school and in life. Here are some tips to promote emotional development in young children.
To learn to manage strong emotions, children must be able to identify feelings. To teach this, provide words for what you, the child and others feel during everyday experiences, in books, movies, or magazine pictures. Describe what the child feels as the feeling is experienced, “You sound angry.” “You look sad.” “You are so excited to go outside!” As the child gets older, ask how he or she is feeling. Labeling feelings reduces stress while teaching children to recognize different feelings.
Teach children what they can do
Have you ever tried to force a child out of a bad mood with bargaining, threatening or punishing? It does not work so well. Children need to learn what to do with strong emotions. A child is not allowed to bite, but what can she do? She can say “Stop that!”, find another toy, take a break to calm down or hit a pillow. It is important to learn how to work through negative feelings and emotions.
Model appropriate responses to emotions
Young children observe adults and imitate what they see. When you are upset, be intentional and model constructive ways to bring down your intensity. For example, when a car pulls in front of you say, “That makes me mad when someone pulls in front of me. I’d better take a few deep breaths to calm myself.” Then, take several deep breaths and talk about how much better you feel. Over time, your child will use the healthy techniques to work through strong emotions.
Adults often share that “Every time I am rushed and in a hurry to get somewhere, my child falls apart.” This is because stress is “catchy.” When stress hormones increase in our body, so does the stress in people near us. Overall, adults who manage their emotions teach children how to do so as well.
Caring for young children with ever-changing emotions is not easy. But imagine you are a preschooler experiencing powerful emotions without the knowledge, skills or experience to manage them. Take the time to see things from your child’s point of view. With love, encouragement, support and patience, young children will grow into loving and successful adults. What you teach today will matter.
Raelene Ostberg is a PAIIR Parent Educator.