What an interesting time to be writing about the emotional health and well-being of children. The plan to have this as the topic of this article happened long before the threat and onset of Hurricane Sandy, but now seems unfortunately appropriate. Acknowledging and managing young children’s feelings has long been a hot topic. When they get hurt, do we tell them to brush it off? When they are sad after separation from a parent and caregiver, do we distract them? When they are fearful of a hurricane, do we simply tell them not to worry? I’m not sure that there is one answer.
Many parents learn early on about the temperament of the child they are raising. Some like to have a lot of information, while for others this raises anxiety levels. Some do well to be distracted when they have sustained an injury, while others are settled by knowing what a doctor is doing. This is one of the first things to consider when thinking about how you can help your child express and manage their emotions.
A parent should also consider their child’s age. What can a child at a particular developmental level understand? In many situations, particularly with toddlers sharing materials, we often talk about the value of diversion and distraction. And to be sure, this strategy works. But it is also important that a parent or caregiver acknowledges what a young child is feeling. You might say, “You really wanted a turn with that toy,” or “You’re sad because he took that toy from you.” Acknowledging your child’s emotions – a child of any age – goes a long way. This is really no different from the way you would acknowledge a friend or family member’s feelings when they are upset, concerned, or excited.
Even when (perhaps especially when) your child is the “aggressor,” it’s critical to help her name her feelings, as well as to clearly explain what is and is not OK. Modeling how to manage and express emotions is essential: “I know you are angry that your sister is using that game right now, but you may not pull her hair. What’s another way to let her know you’d like a turn?” With younger children, it’s important to show them what you are feeling and how you manage it. When you are frustrated, let them know. Show them what you do when you are feeling that way. You might tell them, “I’m feeling a little sad right now. I’m going to sit here quietly and have some water. In a few minutes I’ll feel better.” As children get older, involving them in what to do with emotions is a critical step. Read more about showing emotions to young children here.
Needless to say, television and social media have expanded the reach of events like Hurricane Sandy, so that even children who are not directly affected by it have a lot of information regarding its wrath. What to do?
Have your children ask their questions and then turn the questions back to them. Ask them what they mean, so that when you do answer, you are giving the “right” information for their questions. Often, what children are really looking for is reassurance. They want to know that things will be OK and that their emotions are manageable.
Moving children past their emotions is significant from the perspective of them knowing that difficult feelings can be overcome, but when you ignore or downplay children’s emotions, where do they go? I can assure you that they don’t spontaneously disappear. Reflecting on your child’s temperament and developmental level, letting him know that his feelings are worth talking about and that there are things he can do when he is full of emotions is essential. That works for children of all ages.
Situations like the Krim murders on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Hurricane Sandy, bring to the forefront for parents an intense sense of vulnerability. The reality is that none of us are immune from difficulties and tragedy. During these times children need to know that the people they love are available to them to talk and play through what they are feeling and to take care of them and help them feel safe.
Dana Rosenbloom has a master’s degree in Infant and Parent Development and Early Intervention and has been working with children and families for over 10 years. Dana’s Kids provides parent education, play and behavior therapy, special education services, parent workshops and support groups, and professional development. To learn more about Dana and Dana’s Kids please visit www.DanasKids.com. You can also follow Dana on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DanasKids1 and Twitter: DJRkids.
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