Dealing with Young Children’s Changing Emotions
The Emotional Roller-Coaster
By Playskool Advisor Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD
I was baby-sitting my niece once when she was around two years old. She had a hard time saying goodbye to her mom and dad and a hard time settling in to play or have fun with me. I went to hold her and comfort her but she ran under the table and told me to go away. I asked her if I could come under the table with her to keep her company and she said no, I should leave the house. I said I couldn’t do that, but I would move farther away. I stepped back a little and sat on the floor and asked if that was far enough away. She said yes, and began to cry a little. After a few minutes she came out from under the table and said, “The tears just popped out.” “They certainly did,” I said, and we both smiled. “Let’s watch Cinderella,” she said, “that wicked stepmother is really mean. She says, ‘hold your tongue!'”
I think the lesson from this story is that it can be confusing to us what to do as young children’s emotions change dramatically about a thousand times during each day. They can swing from happy to sad to scared to worried to happy to everything in between. And they don’t just feel their feelings. They feel them, extravagantly, like they just invented that emotion. Fortunately, our job as adults is not to keep them happy all the time, or to protect them from every tough feeling. Our job instead is to help them learn the skills they need to ride that roller coaster without flying off–to manage their emotions.
If I had left the room, my niece would have been all alone with her sadness. If I had moved in too close, she would have been mad at me for crowding her. If I had tried too fast to cheer her up, she would have felt invalidated about her feelings. But what happened instead is that she was able to cry about the separation, while knowing I was nearby. That made it possible for her to make the transition to enjoying herself. Many adults say that it hurts to cry. But when my niece said that the tears “just popped out” she was expressing how easily tears can flow if you aren’t trying to shove them back in.
Here are some tips for helping children regulate their emotions as they grow–but don’t expect them to learn it quickly!
Help them name their emotions, but do this a little bit tentatively so that we aren’t telling them what they feel, we’re just helping them find words for what they feel. As they get older, expand their emotional vocabulary beyond mad, sad, and scared. (“It looks like maybe you’re kind of frustrated.”)
Welcome a full expression of the feeling before moving into the “cheer up” phase. (“Tell me all about it.”) We might think they are upset over a small thing, but to them it is big and deserves a lot of feelings. If they can truly finish expressing themselves, they are better able to truly cheer up.
Tell bedtime stories and play make-believe games with characters that have strong emotions, and who struggle a little with what to do with their emotions. (“Prince Ulrich was so mad he could scream, and he didn’t know what to do. Do you have any ideas for him?”)
It turns out my niece was right about that mean stepmother in Cinderella. “Hold your tongue” is just about the worst thing you can say to a child. In order to learn how to handle their emotions, they need a chance to speak up, let the tears flow, and explore what it means to be a person with the full range of human feelings.
Posted by Wee Care Nanny Agency