As school is returning full swing, so is the rollercoaster of emotions coming back into the picture. What may seem like bursts of anger, sadness, or even joy are coming with no notice to parents, these may be emotions that children have been feeling for a while but have not had a chance to fully express them until the present moment. The question that then arises is how to establish a household that is not constantly overwhelmed by emotional rollercoasters. And the answer is very simple, it’s to make room for the emotions to exist and be as they are.
Childhood cognitive development moves from everything being very concrete to developing a more symbolic and abstract mindset. Experience and guidance, as evidenced by the work of child development experts Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, are crucial for children to develop through the stages. The same idea can be applied to emotional development. Children must experience and be guided through the fun and tough emotions they are bound to experience. Therefore, parents play a critical role in guiding their children down a successful path of emotional development.
At the center of the healthy emotional regulation lies communication and presence. Children desire to be seen, heard, and cared for, and that includes their emotions as well. Just as we all don’t want to just hear the words, “it’s okay” or “it’s all going to be okay”, neither do our children. They want their parents to experience the emotions with them. They yearn for empathy. The next time your child begins to grow upset and shed tears, take the time to sit on the ground next to them and experience the emotion with them. Don’t try to fix the problem, don’t try to cover up the emotion. Let the emotion be as it is, acknowledge it and embrace it.
As the emotive response has run its course, talk through the emotion. Have an open conversation about the emotional trigger, the emotive response, and the aftermath of the emotion. Let it be normal and acceptable. Then brainstorm ways to overcome the problem at hand without emotions running the conversation. There must be open and honest conversations about emotions, lest guilt and shame rule over emotional regulation and create a lifestyle of emotional outbursts.
Healthy emotional development and continued regulation calls for, as psychologist William Damon coins, a “cooperative enterprise” between parents and children. There needs to be guidance for the children, engagement with the emotions, and respect between the parties as well as a respect for the normal and everyday emotions. This leaves a calling for parents themselves to practice such healthy emotional regulation. As Damon found, children glory in the success of their parents, but in the light of their parents’ shortcomings they will respond with anxiety and disappointment. Honest communication is crucial, then, for parents when it comes to a stable emotional home. Talk about the successes and talk about the failures. Let the emotions be as they are and work towards a healthy and successful regulation and response to the emotions.
The key for emotional development, then, as Damon would suggest, is to have children walking away from an emotion remembering why it was important and knowing how to accurately respond. My challenge for you, parents, is to be the emotional model for your children. Listen to them. Sit with them. Laugh with them, Cry with them. Talk them through the emotions and guide them towards healthy responses. Model appropriate behaviors. But most of all, give emotions a room in your home. Don’t push them to the attic, don’t cover them up with a rug. Give them a chair and have a conversation with them. You just may find the peace you have been searching for.
Damon, W. (1988). The moral child: Nurturing children’s natural moral growth. New York, London: Free Press Collier Macmillan.
Shenfield, T. (2016). Emotional regulation in children. Advanced Psychology.
Webster-Stratton, C. (1995). Emotional regulation: Why children react the way they do and how to help them learn to regulate their emotions. Parenting Insights, (11, 12).
Meaghan grew up in East Texas with parents who were professional helpers. This stirred the desire in her own heart to serve others. Meaghan completed her undergraduate degree at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. She’s a counselor at Lifeologie Oak Cliff works with children and families dealing with anxiety, depression, and stress.
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