Emotional Development

Supporting Emotional Development

Emotional development is not so clear cut and easy to measure as other areas of development, is it? A toddler’s emotions can overwhelm us sometimes. Just think how confusing and challenging it is for a little one with an incomplete emotional development! Teaching emotional intelligence is a crucial task for parents, carers and teachers, especially those with young children.

What’s Emotional Intelligence?

The way I understand it, optimal emotional intelligence is, the ability to understand, release and control our own emotions when appropriate, in a nutshell. It’s an important part of emotional development.

The western world often doesn’t welcome the expression of negative emotions and positive ones are often only allowed to be shown at certain times. Apart from special needs education, schools often neglect supporting children’s emotional development.

Most of us have learnt to suppress our feelings to various degrees. Those powerful emotions are still within us, effecting how we think and act, whether we know it or not. I used to think I was controlling my emotions by burying and trying to forget about them. I realized that those hidden feelings were in fact controlling my thoughts and reactions on a subconscious level.

Emotions are designed to be expressed and released as they are felt. Babies and toddlers understand and demonstrate this well, until they are taught multiple times that it’s not acceptable or how to to do it instead. Controlling our emotions isn’t always needed or healthy, other times channelling the way we express our emotions is the wisest action. Safe emotional release such a crying, laughing, hitting a pillow or pounding some clay are empowering ways to deal with powerful emotions when they arise.

Handling Temper Tantrums

Ignoring little ones as they express powerful negative emotions of any kind actually hinders optimal emotional development (even if the crying seems fake). It’s helpful to realize that temper tantrums, crying, whining, misbehaviour are actually the child’s desperate request for help in the best way they know how.

Did you know that it’s hard for young children to switch from the emotional part of their brains, to the intellectual part that controls speech? That might explain why a truly upset child (even adult) is hard or impossible to understand while they are crying or raging. I’ve often found that trying to encourage toddlers to use their words or ask what’s wrong makes them more upset, which made sense when I looked at it from their perspective.

Another emotional development concept that’s often misunderstood is the difference between trying to stop the crying/raging and meeting the child’s needs. I used to often distract toddlers from feeling sad or angry really quickly and feel good thinking I was meeting their needs. Now I realize I was teaching those children not to think about, accept or express emotions. I’ve also learnt first hand how hard it is to re-learn that and then productively deal with many years of buried emotions. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.

A growing trend is to sit with a child having a tantrum or crying and try to reconnect with them and sensitively figure out what and how the (often hidden) issue needs solving. When the child is in physical pain, it can often be more straight forward to comfort and deal with. Often the real reason for a tantrum or melt down needs thinking about. The trigger or surface reason (usually the only one the child knows about on a conscious level) might help us figure it out, but rarely is the only reason.

Let them know that you are there to help them through this by:

  • Body language – get down to their level or carry/hug them if appropriate. Prevent them from hurting you, others, themselves or objects by gently yet firmly holding them, otherwise let them kick/hit the floor/bed and scream.
  • Breath deeply – Encouraging toddlers to take three deep breaths can prevent a tantrum or calm them down quickly near the end of one. This is great tool to keep ourselves calm too! I get close to them, say neutrally and model “let’s take a deep breath, and again, one more. Now we’re calmer we can think more clearly”. Sometimes the breeze we create on their faces can encourage them to release their emotions through laughter, and we can join them.
  • Tone of voice – If they can’t hear you at normal speaking volume then wait. In that time work on calming down ourselves.
  • Words – Validate their experience and obvious feelings in a factual or lightly questioning way. It’s OK if they get louder. The aim is to help the child HEAL from the upset/anger, not stop before they’ve finished processing their emotions (even if the reason of the tantrum seems silly to us).
  • Emotions – It’s easier said than done but try to stay calm and accept their emotional expression as the helpful healing tool it is. Doing EFT right there would really help you! During a rage, if they let you, say this EFT action poem and tap on them. If you feel like you’ll loose your temper, leave them a few minutes if it’s safe after saying that you’ll be right back.
  • Offer Alternatives – Encouraging raging children to draw how angry they are or pound clay/playdough/pillow can often help everyone feel better but sometimes children need to cry and rage a bit or a lot before they’re ready to do anything else. Hang in there! It’s handy to remind oursleves that this too shall pass. 🙂

Parenting Tip For Your Toddler: a crying/raging toddler is simply having a hard time and dealing with it the best they can. They need emotional development support rather than punishment. Which do you like/gain from best when your upset or angry? Check out more tips on handling temper tantrums respectfully.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence

Emotion Cards
You could buy emotion cards or make your own with photos of your child displaying different emotions. I just looked through the regular family photos and found various expressions (that others might delete). Then I cropped, printed and laminated double sided (to save on laminating sheets). If the back was left blank you could write the emotion(s) on there. They are more than flashcards because they could spark a discussion or sometimes I describe them thoroughly for a pre-verbal tot who’s interested.

Discuss Their Emotions
Supporting emotional development can be done any time not just while they’re having a melt down like described above. Toddler’s emotions are often easy to ‘read’. I like to drop in validations or questions about how I think toddlers might be feeling. For example I often say: “I know, you’re feeling sad that daddy left” or “you look content in that swing”.

Playfully Comment
Using puppets, doll, figures etc while acting out a scene can make supporting their emotional development more playful. It would be especially fun for a child if it were child-led, ie, lead if they want guidance yet follow if they have their own ideas. Simply mention feelings naturally as the voice of your character. We often to it anyway… *toddler throws doll* and we might say “aww, poor baby, are you hurt? She’s sad and needs a cuddle”, right? I go on to talk about that the doll might had felt scared, upset, and cross that she was thrown etc.

The Happy Game
Another fun way of supporting emotional development while they play. Sometimes when a child I know looks at me seeming happy, with an excited tone, enthusiasm and a big smile, I ask: “Are you feeling content? Are you feeling good? Are you feeling happy? Are you feeling sunny? Are you feeling blissful? Are you feeling joyful? Are you feeling great? Are you feeling delighted? Are you feeling wonderful? Are you feeling brilliant? Are you feeling fantastic? Are you feeling awesome? Are you feeling uplifted? Are you feeling excited? Are you feeling thrilled? Are you feeling ecstatic? WOW!”

In my experience I always run out of descriptive words before toddlers loose interest. Do you notice I start off with more mild positive emotions then build up to stronger ones. That’s because I’ve found this activity get tots really excited… some beam or ‘get the giggles’ and others shout “yeah!”. I am careful not to interrupt when they are concentrating on something else though. Pushing a little one on a swing is a perfect opportunity when facing them. Go on… I find it fun too. 🙂

I hope this inspires you to empower children with this kind of emotional development support. 🙂 You may find our parenting tips handy too.