Skip to main content

Parenting article: Viewing Children's Emotions Through a Connection Lens

Submitted by Heather on Fri, 12/04/2015 - 12:11

Our recent P.E.T. workshops have inspired me to reflect on parenting practices and our teacher connection methods at preschool.  We all want to give our children the foundation to be confident adults: creative, happy, resourceful problem-solvers, lifelong learners, caring and motivated members of our society. One way we can facilitate that is through understanding and empathy.

Understanding and empathy (like eating all our vegetables) isn't always possible for a parent, but the more often it is present, the healthier it is for your child.  Rushing to “fix” a problem (such as giving children the candy they are fervently demanding at the check-out stand) often only provides momentary peace and quiet for surrounding adults.

It can be frustrating and upsetting when our children are flooded with emotion and acting in ways that we don't understand. Sometimes our feelings are driven by our empathy with our children, and our gut wants to fix whatever it is that is bothering or upsetting our child.  Other times, we are tired and the emotional expression is too much for us to process, so we just want our children to settle down and be rational.

These times are often made more difficult by strongly rooted social expectations in our culture which are unrealistic for young children. We’ve been taught to evaluate children as “well-mannered”, “well-behaved”, “polite”, or “good” and to label children who are sad or angry as “acting-out”, “having a fit”, “throwing a tantrum” or even “being bad.” But if we want our children to feel safe sharing their problems and feelings with us as they grow into caring and empathetic adults, it is helpful to challenge those social categories and allow ourselves to be present and accepting with them when they are upset.

Although authoritarian and permissive parenting both come from good intentions, neither help children thrive in the long run. Neither orders and threats or appeasement and bribes allow the child to experience the important process of releasing the upset and feeling understood. When we teach children to ignore or hide their feelings we do them a disservice. Instead of learning how to deal with their emotions, as a valuable source of information about their own needs, they may learn those feelings are not okay and to ignore or deny their own needs. This can be costly as they grow.

Luckily, there is a third way--a new lens: viewing our children's upset as a necessary release and opportunity for connection with our support on the road to self-regulation and emotional wellness. Knowing a bit about early brain development can give us important context for more understanding, patience, and compassion with our children's struggles.

Emotional flooding (or “Temper-tantrums”):

The emotional center of the brain makes the biggest strides in development before a child is five. During this period, children’s feelings are amplified when they are upset, and their ability to calm down and demonstrate self-control are still developing in the brain. Early childhood is a time when children are growing their emotional stress management capacity. The wiring of our brains is such that when any of us is emotionally flooded (or overwhelmed) we are not easily able to access the higher level thinking (executive function) and good decision making that is otherwise accessible to us. This is even harder for young children, whose brains have not fully developed.

Emotional flooding in young children is natural, normal, and to be expected. It is an honest communication of how a child is feeling and often an indication of important brain development. The frequency and strength of the flooding varies from child to child. It is often most frequent in the 2nd   (hence, “terrible twos”) and 3rd year, but can continue through age four as well. When anyone of any age is flooded with anger or upset (in fight or flight mode) their ability to think is overruled by survival instincts in the lower brain. Being with adults who show empathy and understanding in times of emotional stress allows important synaptic connections in the brain to develop which are key to a lifetime of internal security and emotional well-being.

Young children may quickly resort to tears or displays of anger or upset when they are processing stress and emotions. Sometimes the emotions are related directly to a current event or experience, and sometimes there is emotion that hasn't been expressed fully or has been building for some time. It can be helpful for teachers and parents to remember that stress hormones are released in the crying process. Crying fully with your supportive and loving care often allows them to release their stress and emerge a more connected, centered and cooperative child.

Most of the time, the need for connection and emotional release is more important than the thing the child is asking for. “It's not about the ball” is a common phrase that we use at preschool between teachers when we notice a child getting upset frequently about a variety of scenarios.

Of course, sometimes, it really is only “about the ball.” A child might be tired of waiting for a turn with a toy, for example. In these cases when we facilitate communication with the other children, the child gets a turn and doesn't continue to get upset in a variety of scenarios.

If, however, there’s a repeated pattern of upset or a hugely inflated upset beyond a minor frustration, that is a clue that maybe it's “not about the ball.” The child likely needs some listening time and compassion. We may hold them or sit with them and hear their upset. We will help them know we are trying to understand by stating how we think they are feeling: “You're frustrated. It isn't fair that you haven't had a turn yet.” They may cry for 10 minutes before they regulate. And if they are really struggling, they may cry longer. Allowing the upset helps them grow emotionally, and feel connected and more confident.

Off-track behavior (a pattern of upsets, ignoring rules, or lack of cooperation) can alert us that something's not quite right, that our child may be struggling with something emotionally and may need some regular, additional time with us focusing only on what they want to do (just in 10 or 15 minute intervals--but planned on a daily basis whenever possible).

Knowing exactly what our children are upset about isn't as important to their process as being present and supportive when it arises. The most supportive and helpful thing to do in these situations is just to help them feel understood. This can take the form of being present, holding them if they want to be held, and active listening.

Active listening is a way of showing them that you are trying to understand their upset. Usually, this is in the form of a statement about how you think they are feeling and what you think might be upsetting them. “Putting yourself in their shoes” may help you come up with what you think they are feeling. This will provide an opportunity for your child to agree or disagree with your interpretation and for the dialogue to continue. If this seems hard, just being present, open and caring is another form of listening that helps children through their upset.

Supporting a child through their upset does not mean that they are calling the shots. “Fixing the problem” for our children by offering solutions often bypasses really important avenues of connection, understanding and opportunities for their own problem solving and growing their own emotional security.

Limits with love and understanding:

There are many situations where your child may want something that isn't appropriate or okay with you due to a variety of important reasons. In these moments where your child floods with emotion because they really want the thing you are saying they can't have, the best thing you can do for your child is offer your love and understanding while maintaining the limit you feel is best. Regularly allowing the child’s upset to make us question reasonable limits may communicate an uncertainty of our own needs, and a world that isn't quite reliable, which the child may internalize. Often in preschool we have found that a child who continually displays “off-track” behavior benefits from the regular expectations of limits, along with some added special time and empathy.

A preschooler learns much of their emotional road map and caring for others (empathy) through adult modeling of understanding and compassionate support for them (and for others) in a variety of situations. The reality of parenting is different than any “ideals”, and it is important to know that any amount of time invested in connecting with our children is hugely beneficial. We are not always able to give the care and time we want to provide in times of upset for our children, but giving it when we can and being honest but loving when we can't, will go a long way.