Young children are experts at expressing a wide range of powerful emotions daily. From gleeful excitement to enraged anger, children’s emotions can surprise even a seasoned parent. These emotions can bubble up at any time, and may become problematic when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, in a doctor’s office waiting room, or visiting a new friend’s home. When children are flooded with a strong emotional response, they may not be able to cope and that’s when a tantrum occurs.
Learning coping skills is an integral part of every person’s social and emotional development. How we deal with our strong emotions directly impacts our success in the world. If you’ve ever been cut off in traffic, you know how important it is to take a deep breath and let go of any anger in the interest of a safe driving experience. Otherwise, the anger could become “road rage,” a counter-productive response. This ability to “self-regulate,” or manage our own behavior, is a learned skill. Actually, it’s a set of six essential social and emotional skills that we begin teaching young children from birth.*
The first two skills are to recognize and understand one’s own feelings, and accurately read and comprehend the feelings of others. During this early learning phase, it’s important to validate and verbalize a child’s emotional experiences: happy, excited, confused, frustrated, mad, sad, angry, etc. Read books about “feelings.” Look in a mirror and make expressive faces. Describe what a feeling looks like on someone else’s face. Children are naturally empathetic. If one baby cries, they may all begin crying. As they learn about feelings, children begin to attach verbal labels such as “sadness.”
The second two skills are to manage and express strong emotions constructively and to regulate one’s own behavior. Once children learn how to label a feeling, they begin to learn how to manage or cope with that feeling. Teach self-soothing techniques, model how to calm down, and allow children to feel disappointed so they can become more resilient. As children learn to manage emotions, they learn to delay gratification in order to achieve a goal. In other words, they regulate their behavior to resist initial impulses, maintain focus, and undertake tasks even if there are other enticing diversions available.
The third set of skills is to establish and sustain relationships and develop empathy for others. As children learn about feelings in themselves and others, they begin to form friendships. Within these relationships, children may experience positive and negative emotions that lead to pro-social or aggressive behavioral responses. Over time, these interactions deepen a child’s understanding of their own needs while also developing empathy for the experience of others.
The early years provide critical opportunities to nurture the development of emotional health and social competence in children. As they mature, children learn to become productive members of a family, classroom, and larger community. The coping skills they learn will serve them well throughout their lifetime.
* Social and Emotional Development Skill Set, National Institute for Early Education Research, www.nieer.org
Heidi Emberling, MA