An age-by-age guide to helping children to manage their emotions
Are you clueless about how to go about helping your child to manage his emotions? Read on to find out some useful information.
Laughing, crying, screaming, sulking, I’m sure you’ve seen it all if you have kids. At times we find our kids’ emotions endearing and pleasant. But often we are tearing our hair out trying to understand them. Before we delve deeper into helping children to manage their emotions, we must first have a sound understanding of how their emotions work.
Did you know that while we are all born with certain emotions, not all of our emotions are pre-wired into our system? It’s interesting to know that kids are born with certain emotional reactions such as crying, frustration, hunger and pain. But they only learn about many other emotions as they get older.
There is no clear dichotomy between built-in emotions and those that children learn from their social, cultural and emotional contexts. However, it is generally accepted that there are eight primary emotions that are in-built. They are:
Children display these emotions in varying intensities. For example, what starts as anger can escalate into resentment and violence. Likewise, anxiety is often a product of fear.
Secondary emotions are of course related to the eight primary emotions. They reflect our emotional reactions to specific feelings. Meaning to say, these secondary emotions stem from our experiences. For example, a child who is punished for her meltdown may experience some anxiety the next time she gets angry. A child who was made fun of for expressing her fear might associate fear with shame, and may feel embarrassed the next time she feels scared.
Simply put, the way you react to your kids’ emotions creates an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence.
The first step to helping children to manage their emotions is guiding them to identify and understand their emotions. When we do that, we provide them with a framework that aids them to explain and communicate their feelings. This in turn makes it easier for them to handle their emotions in a manner that is socially appropriate.
On the other hand, dismissing their emotions, otherwise known as emotional invalidation, hinders the process of them learning how to manage their emotions. Parents often belittle or dismiss their children’s emotions. If you want to be successful in helping children to manage their emotions, this practice should stop!
Where infants are concerned, they mostly operate based on emotions that are pre-wired into their system, meaning, their primary emotions. So if a baby is crying, it’s either to avoid unpleasant stimuli or to get closer to pleasant stimuli (such as food, touch, kisses).
In their first six months of life, infants can respond to distress by conditioning themselves to self-soothing behaviour such as comfort latching. Toddlers start developing self-regulation skills from infancy and they can either approach or deter themselves from situations depending on their emotional impact.
Helping infants to manage their emotions
Helping children to manage their emotions starts from infancy. Here’s the good news, it’s easier than you thought. Studies show that when babies listen to recordings of play songs, it works better than recordings of infant-directed or adult-directed speech to keep 6 to 9 month old infants in a calm or contented state.
For infants above 10 months, multimodal singing works better. This could attributed to them being more aware of their surroundings and responding more to stimuli. Also, play songs like Wheels on the Bus work better than lullabies! Who would have thought so!
After their first birthday, your little ones get a little bit smarter. They start developing the awareness that parents have a hand in helping children to manage their emotions.
In addition, they start to understand that some emotions are associated with some particular situations. They also find some emotions more difficult to handle. Studies show that toddlers struggle the most with fear.
So what can you do? Helping your children to manage their emotions can begin with using age-appropriate approaches to talk to them and encourage them to name their emotions. At this age, you can read books and stories about emotions and show them pictures.
They are still young but they can start to form associations with the characters in the stories.
When they turn two, it gets even better for they are now able to find ways to deal with difficult emotions. An example would be distancing themselves from situations, people, or things that upset them.
Here are 3 simple strategies to keep in mind when helping children to manage their emotions, namely anger and fear:
- situation selection
Getting your toddlers to avoid distressing situations, or providing them with distractions from such situations is one of the best ways to manage their emotions.
Of course over time, as they get older, you can expect them to be more independent in handling such situations and emotions. They will start to better understand their emotions and learn self-regulation methods. But you must begin by providing them the foundation to manage their own emotions. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
It’s also important to remember that children mimic what they see. Children look at you as their role-models and how you manage your emotions paves the way for them. If you are yelling at them to remain calm, it’s going to leave them terribly disconcerted!
Remember to continue talking to your children about emotions. Get books or even flashcards to help them name the emotions and form associations with what they see.
Children experience a myriad of emotions in their formative years. This is also when their secondary emotions start coming into the picture more.
It is in the childhood phase that their emotions are either validated or invalidated and that influences their future emotional reactions.
In helping their children to manage their emotions, you need to first of all understand that while they do know what emotional expressions are appropriate, they still struggle with expressing themselves. It gets even harder if they are unable to name or identify their emotions.
Helping children to manage their emotions
By this stage, there’s more to managing emotions than just understanding what’s appropriate. It’s a 3-phased process:
- Teaching children to identify emotions
- Helping them to identify the triggers of these emotions
- Helping children to manage their emotions on their own
Again, it is of paramount importance to role-model the right behaviour and way to manage emotions. You can tell all you want but they will learn best from what they see.
Another effective way of getting children to understand and talk about their emotions is by getting them to draw how they feel. You’ll be surprised at just how much you can find out about what’s going on in their heads!
Mums and dads, do remember that at the end of the day, helping your children to manage their emotions begins with validating their emotions and creating an environment in which they feel safe to express themselves. Studies show that kids who feel safe are more likely to display appropriate skills to regulate their emotions.
So remember, if your kids are ‘acting up’, you may have a part to play!