In a child’s early years, they learn about themselves and about the world. They also gain internal programming that influences their actions, reactions and decisions later in life. What we hear, see and feel on a consistent basis throughout our childhood creates beliefs, values and patterns of behaviour that then shape our future. If we want children to grow into emotionally stable adults who can process their thoughts and feelings, we need to make sure that what they experience in their younger years is conducive to this happening.
Our subconscious mind (that guides up to 95% of what we do on a daily basis) is programmed through the information it regularly receives when we are younger. It is very literal and therefore cannot distinguish between good and bad or right and wrong. As a parent, practitioner or teacher, we have good intentions. However, sometimes (and for all the right reasons), our actions can unintentionally create programming that doesn’t support children to process their thoughts and feelings in a balanced way.
It is never easy to see an upset child and when we do, we might say things like “awww don’t be sad” or “you’re okay”. Our intention here is completely from the right place and is driven by our desire to reduce their pain or minimise the problem. However, if we look closely at the literal message of our words, we will actually see that it is teaching children that:
- They shouldn’t be sad
- To act okay when they are not
If this message is given to them regularly, there is a chance it will become a default setting for how they subconsciously process their feelings later in life. If we want children to acknowledge their emotions when they are older, we need to teach them how to do this when they are little.
It is important to look at how we want children to act when they grow up and then to ask ourselves if the literal message of our words and action will result in this happening. Our heart will always be in the right place, but like I said previously, the mind cannot interpret our intentions, only the direct information it is receiving.
When children get older we want them to:
- Know that no problem is too big or small
- Come to us when they have made a mistake or are worried, rather than isolating themselves
- Know that it is okay to not be okay
- Know that it is okay to express their feelings
- Face things, rather than burying their head
- Let things out, rather than holding emotions in
If this is the case, we need to look at our consistent words and actions and ask ourselves if they are programming children with this message now. It can be hard if we realise that we need to tweak a few things that we are doing. Our heart is always in the right place and it is important to move forward without reproaching ourselves and feeling bad. We are always on a journey of development and when we know better, we do better. I still catch myself saying things now that have a dodgy message, but having this awareness allows me to change and reframe things before they become a habit.
"Despite our problems seeming small when we look back, they are big at the time and hurt just as much."
Something that I think is important for children (and adults) to know is that no problem is too big or small. At times, children can seem to get upset about the most trivial things. However, if we look at the world through their eyes, we will often see that although to us their problem seems small, to them, it is huge. Cast your mind back to the issues you had when you were a teenager. Most of us will look back and think that they were nothing compared to what we face now as adults. However, if you remember how you felt at the time, you will recall that the feelings were just as powerful. This is because problems are relative. As we get older, we gain more experience and responsibility and because of that the issues we face become bigger. Nevertheless, at each stage in our lives, despite our problems seeming small when we look back, they are big at the time and hurt just as much.
When a toddler loses it because they have been given the wrong pen, to us it may seem ridiculous. However, to them it feels like the end of the world. Not only are they facing an issue relative to their age and therefore MASSIVE in their eyes, they also quite often don’t have the skills to articulate how they are feeling, so have a huge amount of frustration added to the mix too.
When this happens, if we can try to understand that through their three-year-old eyes, this is devastating, we will deal with them in a very different way. If we support them through their sadness and screams, help them to find a solution and acknowledge how they feel, we will truly teach them that:
- It is okay to express feelings
- No problem is too big or small
- We are there to support them no matter what
Now sometimes (and I have been there many times), they are too far gone and nothing you can do will make them feel better. This can be difficult because they can get out of control and start having a huge tantrum. However, it is crucial when this happens to understand that when a child goes into meltdown, they are not being defiant. They are not developmentally-equipped with the ability to bring themselves back, and it is at these times when they need us the most.
It can be hard to sit through a raging tantrum and to see a child so sad, but if we can just give them the space to process their feelings in their own time and in the safety of our presence, they regulate more quickly. They will also learn, little by little, how to process their emotions whilst knowing it is safe to do so.
A child isn’t born with the ability to regulate and process their emotions. They learn how to do this over time and through their experiences. Without a shadow of a doubt, we put children and their well-being at the heart of what we do, but by having a deeper understanding of how our words and actions impact them, we can truly give them a strong foundation and the ability to have emotional balance later in life.
About the author
Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.
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