You & Your Child’s Big Emotions
Toddlers have tantrum. Teens will sulk. In between…well, it could be almost anything. Children respond to emotions in ways that frustrate their parents and even make them feel helpless at times. But if we, as parents and adults in their lives, learn these important facts about our children’s emotions we don’t have to feel frustrated and helpless. In fact, learning these important facts will empower us to parent more effectively. What facts am I talking about?
- Children experience the world differently than adults experience the world. They hear more and different sounds. They see things from a different vantage point, literally. For instance, since their eyes are two to three feet below most adults, a crowd becomes a sea of legs blocking their vision…and that could be frightening. Our children also experience many sights and sounds as new and unknown, even though we consider them familiar and even mundane. So, a child may get upset by a sight or sound that an adult has not even noticed.
- Children also have a different sense of time than adults. Time moves more slowly with less rush for children. They get bored more easily as “time drags on” while we, as adults, feel pressured by too little time. What an adult may experience as a passing moment can seem like an unbearable eternity to a child whom we admonish to “sit still. It will only be a minute.” Remember how long those minutes seemed as a child…as the second hand on the clocked ticked…slowly…along? Overall, it may seem as though children get upset about the “silliest,” most mundane things. But when we begin to realize how different a child’s experience of the world is from our adult experience, their responses seem much more reasonable and even understandable.
- Children’s distress quickly goes from zero to sixty and spills over into everything. Their emotions often result in a meltdown that takes over the moment and everyone present. In fact, children experience difficulty managing strong emotions. Their emotional management skills are underdeveloped compared to adults. They have not learned and internalized the coping skills necessary to deal with the emotional struggles they encounter—like the fear of abandonment, frustrated desires, bullying, loss [even death], disappointment. They need us—the strong, healthy adults in their lives—to help them regulate their emotions in the moment and to teach them how to regulate their emotions in the future.
- Children engage in emotional outbursts and meltdowns at the worst possible moments. They meltdown when getting ready to leave the house or when preparing for bed; they become attention-seeking when you’re on the phone; they have the screaming match with their sister when you have a headache. It’s true, children have emotional outbursts at the most inconvenient times. And, in all reality, that makes sense. Children have a need for security and the adults who care for them provide that security. When we, as caregivers, exhibit stress of some kind (trying to get everyone out the door on time, feeling exhausted yet trying to get our children ready for bed, irritated because we didn’t sleep well last night, etc.), our children feel our stress and become stressed themselves. Our stress creates a question in their lives about our availability to them and, as a result, their safety. When we, as caregivers, begin to focus elsewhere (like on our telephone or the meal we are preparing for dinner), our children want to make sure we are available to them. When we, as caregivers are tired, distracted, stressed, or rushed, our children respond with emotional outbursts that implicitly express their fear and need for security. In essence, their emotional outburst often implicitly asks, “Are you available to care for me? Or are you too tired, distracted, stressed, or busy to make sure I’m safe?”
These four factors about our children and their emotions opens the door for us to respond to difficult emotions with greater effectiveness. Watch for next week’s blog in which we will explore some ways we can help our children and teens manage their emotions and have fewer outbursts in the process.