Have you ever experienced a very emotional moment and felt like you were both in it and at the same time, separate from it? Almost as if you were looking down at yourself. This is because when very strong emotions are triggered, the automatic programmes of flight, fright and fight can take over to protect us. These primitive parts of our brain play an essential role in getting us out of the way of an oncoming car. But feeling like we have no control as we hand over to the primitive regions of the brain is not something we want to rely on when our best friend has just said something mean about our drawing.
During a social encounter, a child’s immature brain may be quick to respond from its more primitive regions. But you can actively help them retain control and tap back into their higher intelligence by working with them, helping them see how they can manage their responses and choose their actions.
When our children are immersed in emotions that they do not yet fully understand, upset feelings of anger or hurt are often their instant response. Sometimes, all it takes is to spend time with someone feeling anxious or excited to begin physiologically responding in that way too, recognising their emotions and taking them on as your own.
Studies where researchers have caused a mother to feel stressed, then to reunite them with their 1-year-old child, have noted the child’s heart rates increasing to match their mum’s. Even though the child had not been exposed to the stressful situation themselves. When you consider the intimate relationship children have with others, you can understand how important our emotions are to them. But you can help safeguard children from negative effects by helping them to understand their emotions and the processes that drive their behaviours.
First, take a moment as you make sure a child’s own feelings are not overwhelming them. Once they are calm and can hear what you are saying, you can help them consider their feelings and that of their friends with a more considered response. You can remind them that sometimes we can all say things we do not mean and that their friend looks pretty upset too. As you consider the feelings and realities that others may be managing, you can think of a more considered response to the situation before any real damage is done to the relationship.
That said, imagining the feelings of another person is a skill that develops gradually throughout childhood. So while you can – and should - talk to children about their emotions and the feelings that may have prompted an outburst, manage your expectations. To respond in a compassionate and considered way is something you can only expect once children have lost the egocentric motivations of their younger years. This takes active development and practice to do well. And unless a child’s well-being is effectively nurtured, they are unlikely to offer a considered or empathetic response to anyone.
Show children how they can experience their feelings and express their ideas while respecting and accepting the needs and wants of others. Acknowledge how other people’s behaviours might be displaying their emotions, while gently reminding the child that their emotions are all their own.
Once a child has learnt to recognise and understand the emotions of others, they can then learn to respond more constructively to irrational and hurtful things that may be said in the heat of the moment. To support this, develop an awareness and curiosity in children about the ways in which other people feel. Help them notice the emotions they see around them, imagining how a character in a story might feel. And talk about the power you have to change your emotions and make choices for yourself. When you stepped on the brick you had asked them to tidy away, remind them that you had a choice over whether you continued with a negative emotion or actively sought to change it.
While it is one thing to realise the feelings of another person, this does not necessarily lead to empathetic behaviour. We might recognise and imagine someone’s emotions, but whether we do something about it relies on whether we want to. And whether we are capable of it. And while still immersed in the egocentric motivations of their younger years’, a child’s instant reaction may not be to comfort, share or help others.
To develop these responses in your children, you might want to show them how you respond warmly to a friend’s feelings and how you think about the best way to be kind. A visit to grandparents might be much better than flowers sent through the post. Helping a colleague may be better than making suggestions. When you allow children to consider their own ideas, with opportunities to use them, this goes a great deal further than “say you are sorry!”
A child who can recognise their emotions and manage them in the moment will be better equipped to manage testing social encounters when emotions may be running high. And to repair any damage that has been done after the fact. Through the games you play and the books you read, support them in recognising the behaviours on display. Think about the emotions that might be making a person act in a particular way and how they could act differently. Consider how someone else might be feeling and how you could support this person as they begin to feel better. And how all relationships need give and take from time to time as we try to understand each other’s feelings and how our actions influence and affect those around us.
Teaching children strategies that recognise and help manage their feelings and emotions offers them coping methods that they will rely on for life. And in time, even pass on to their own children.
This is the last article from The Secure Child. Next time we will look at The Happy Child as we consider “What does it mean to be me?” But in the meantime, bring focus back to nurturing all of children’s growth and development with a Nurturing Childhoods Accreditation. Whether you are looking for a setting wide approach to reflective practice and active CPD or a more personalised approach with the Nurturing Childhoods Practitioner Accreditation, gain recognition for the nurturing practice you deliver. Through 12 online sessions through the year join me and hundreds of nurturing practitioners as together we really begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.
About the author:
As Founder of Nurturing Childhoods, Dr Kathryn Peckham is a passionate advocate for children’s access to rich and meaningful experiences throughout their foundational early years. Delivering online courses, training and seminars, she works with families and settings to identify and celebrate the impact of effective childhood experiences as preparation for all of life’s learning. An active campaigner for children, she consults on projects, conducts research for government bodies and contributes to papers launched in parliament. Through her consultancy and research she guides local councils, practitioners, teachers and parents all over the world in enhancing children’s experiences through the experiences they offer. A highly acclaimed author and member of parliamentary groups, Kathryn also teaches a Masters at the Centre for Research in Early Years.
Get in contact with Kathryn by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org