A child’s social-emotional development during the first five years of life will affect their ability to function in school, respond to stress, adapt to change, persist in challenging situations and form meaningful relationships throughout life. Unfortunately, there is often an emphasis on promoting children’s cognitive growth in the early years, with limited attention paid to strengthening their capacity to manage emotions.
Infants rely on sensitive and responsive caregiving to modulate their emotional states. Toddlers and preschoolers have more complex needs, and learning to manage emotions is one of the most challenging tasks of these early years. Those who are given the necessary support and tools will develop a rich emotional repertoire and a large emotional vocabulary. They will build the capacity to verbalize how they feel rather than melting down or acting out.
Here’s how parents and caregivers can support toddlers’ social-emotional development, so that children can learn to manage their emotions and behaviors:
- Allow children to feel and express a full range of feelings, including negative feelings. This includes allowing our children to see us express a range of emotions in a healthy manner. When a child’s actions upset us, we can say, “When you push your sister, it makes Mommy feel disappointed.”
- Encourage children to reflect on their feelings and behaviors. Once the storm of emotions has settled, find a quiet moment to sit with your child. Help them to identify the link between their feelings, behaviors and the consequences of those behaviors. Brainstorm together about better ways of handling a similar situation the next time around.
- Allow children to express difficult feelings without jumping in to offer a solution or a distraction. Simply let them know that you see what they are experiencing. “I can see that it makes you really frustrated when you have to wait a long time for a turn.”
- Avoid minimizing feelings expressed by children. If a child expresses fear, worry or hurt, they need to know that their feelings are valid. If we tell kids, “There is nothing to be scared of,” or “It’s OK,” we are giving them the message that their feelings are not to be trusted.
- Help children develop the necessary language for expressing their feelings. Children initially don’t have the vocabulary to express what they feel and why. Put your observations of their feelings and experiences into words so that, over time, they will learn to do the same: “When your brother took your marker, it made you so angry.”
- Remain unruffled in the face of your children’s emotional storms. There is no way to ensure that your child will not become unglued at apparently trivial matters, and no need for you to try to prevent this or to get their emotions under control. The only thing to do is to remain calm and ride out the storm, allowing them to know that you are there for them as they work to recollect themselves.
- Teach, practice, and model coping strategies. There are many strategies for coping with difficult feelings, such as taking a break, doing a physical activity and deep breathing. Find a strategy that your child is inclined to do and engage in a regular practice of it outside of challenging situations. Model using a coping strategy yourself in moments of frustration, and reinforce any attempts your child makes to use a strategy to de-escalate.
Talk about household rules, limits, and reasons why there are enforced. As your children grow, give them a voice in determining appropriate boundaries and consequences. This allows them to learn about problem solving when faced with gaps between what they want the options that are feasible.
- Use play, stories, and art to support children in expressing their feelings, wishes, and conflicts. Play and art offer wonderful opportunities for emotional expression, conflict resolution and problem solving.
- Choose time-ins over time-outs. Moments of anger, defiance or limit testing are when our children need our calm presence and guidance the most. A time-in is the simple act of sitting with your child and empathizing with how they feel, without changing your stance on the boundaries you’ve placed or the behaviors you have deemed unacceptable. It allows children to connect and feel that their needs are being considered, even if the ultimate outcome does not change.
Helping our children develop their capacity for emotional regulation is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, as it requires for us to manage our own feelings of anger, hurt, frustration and disappointment in the best way possible. If we can use our own tools for coping, remaining calm and not taking things personally, we can build a solid foundation upon which our children can develop their own coping strategies effectively.
Hilya Delband Tehrani, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, child development specialist and behavior analyst who has been providing therapeutic services for children and adolescents for more than 17 years.