Small bodies, big feelings
All children can experience strong feelings ranging from joy and excitement to fear and anger. However, young children lack the ability to use words to let others know what they are feeling, and they do not have the capacity to regulate their own emotions. The part of the brain that controls emotions and allows children to think, plan, and problem solve does not start to develop until close to age three. Most kids cannot consistently regulate emotions until the age of five or six, and this skill continues to develop into adulthood.
Learning to express thoughts, feelings, and needs begins in the early years by using actions. Some actions are appropriate, such as raising their arms to indicate they want to be picked up. Others are more challenging, like hitting, kicking, and throwing things. In terms of development, these behaviors are completely normal. Remember, these moments are efforts your child is making to communicate, and they can be used to teach your child about emotions, coping, and problem solving.
As a parent, being aware of your own emotions is a big factor in how your child is going to respond and express their emotions. Children rely on their parents for guidance, and they are always watching and observing. Having an intense, angry reaction is not going to help your child learn good coping skills. Take a pause and consider your own thoughts and feelings before reacting to your child.
One of the primary steps in helping your child manage emotions is to acknowledge them. Let your child know that you understand how difficult it is to hear the word no, how disappointing it is that they can’t wear their favorite shirt today, or how mad they are that another child took their toy. Naming the emotion your child is trying to express teaches them that we understand what they are trying to tell us through their behavior, and that it is okay to have this emotion. Naming what your child is feeling helps them learn to match the feeling with the word, gives the feeling a name, and translates behavior into words.
Throughout the day, say out loud feelings you see your child expressing with their body language. “You have a big smile this morning, it looks like you are feeling happy,” or “You are stomping your feet, I can tell you are angry.” Use feelings charts and posters to help your child identify how they are feeling at different times of the day. Give verbal recognition when they are appropriately able to express and cope with their feelings.
Talking to your child about how you see others feeling is a good way for them to recognize emotions and show empathy for others. Talk to your child about what you observe, such as, “That little boy looks mad, I see he is crying and making fists with his hands.” Initiate a discussion about why that child may be experiencing a feeling and what they can do to manage the emotion. You can observe and talk about how others are feeling at home, when in the community, in books, and in movies.
Children with a strong emotional vocabulary are better able to tolerate frustration, get into fewer fights, are healthier, tend to be more social, are more focused and less impulsive, and have better academic achievement. Teaching your child proper words for emotions and validating them can prevent problem behaviors down the road.
Children often go through phases, making it difficult to distinguish between what is typical and what is problematic. Social and emotional problems in children may present as aggressive behaviors, extreme fears or sadness, or being difficult to soothe or console. Other concerns may be a child who displays little or no emotion, consistently rejects being touched or held, shows no interest in interacting with others, is overly friendly with strangers, or shows extreme difficulty separating from caregivers.
South Central Human Relations Center provides early childhood mental health services for children ages 0-5. Services begin with a comprehensive evaluation completed over three sessions to consider any aspects of your child’s development, relationships, and environment that may be impacting your child’s social and emotional development. Based on your child’s level of need, ongoing services may involve child centered or family play therapy, referrals, case management services, skills work, and parent education. If you have questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please call our office at 507-451-2630. We have immediate availability and offer a range of times to fit your schedule and assess your needs. There is no better time than now.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or substance abuse, reach out to South Central Human Relations Center for assistance at 800-722-0590. Our team can help guide you through the services available in the community to meet your individual needs.
Lorraine Njos is the infant mental health specialist and outpatient therapist for South Central Human Relations serving Kasson and Owatonna.
Photo: Dodge Talkin’ Lorraine Njos