I just returned from a preschool behavioral observation of a high emotion three-year old girl. When I say high emotion, I mean that she responds intensely to all stimuli. When she’s happy, she’s squealing, and when she’s angry or frustrated, she’s screaming or crying. These high emotion children can trigger equally strong reactions in the parents and teachers who care for them.
High emotion children need predictable, calm caregiving techniques; exactly the opposite reaction they often elicit. When emotions in an adult/child conversation escalate, adults are the only ones capable of calming the level of intensity. Unfortunately, we often choose to enter the battle, instead of retreat. It’s extremely hard for us as parents and teachers to “lose” to a three-year old.
Strategies for dealing with a young child’s emotional intensity are multifaceted.
-Environments: Where are your calming spaces? Do you have a soothing corner with bean bag chairs, tumbling mats, or pop-up tents? Are there physical outlets for frustration such as mini-trampolines, sit-and-spins, hanging bars in doorways, empty wading pools filled with mini-balls (for your own makeshift ball pit)?
-Routines: How are transitions handled? Are there predictable routines throughout the day and particularly when emotions run high for this child? Some children go with the flow and others need a lot of preparation for any changes in the daily schedule.
-Attitude: Do you speak to the high emotion child in a calm, authoritative voice? Have you validated the child’s internal struggle? Can you leave the room if you feel yourself getting pulled into the emotion of the moment? How does it feel to “lose” the argument? Is there a way for both of you to “win?”
Remember that the adult is the only one who will be able to find a creative solution in the heat of the moment. If you’re out of ideas, you may need to leave the room, clear your head, and think of a viable solution the child might appreciate. Sometimes, we simply cannot bend the rules. When safety is the issue, there is no discussion. That’s not to say the child won’t react in a high emotion way—of course they will. And when they do, we can reassure them by validating their feelings, even when we can’t grant their immediate request.
High emotion children need predictable, steady caregiving. It’s important to remember that intensity is a temperament trait, set by our genes. Although intensity of emotion will be controlled with later development, young children do not yet know how to self-regulate without help. Creating environments and routines that allow for expression of strong emotion and opportunities for self-soothing, coupled with adults who validate and accept the emotions of their child are the best strategies for surviving and thriving during those intense interactions.