By Christine Murray, HRI Director

Even very little kids can have really big emotions. Have you ever noticed how young children seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves? Young children will naturally let you know how they’re feeling–whether positive or negative. If they’re happy, you’ll see it in their smiles and loud laughs. And if they’re not happy? Well, they have many ways of showing that, too!

From birth through young adulthood, children need support learning how to feel and express their emotions, especially in the context of their interactions with others. The Parent Toolkit describes children’s social and emotional development as follows: “Social and emotional intelligence involves understanding your feelings and behaviors, as well as those of others, and applying this knowledge to your interactions and relationships.” Gaining maturity both socially and emotionally fosters children’s growth and success in school and in life.

As adults, we have many opportunities to foster the social and emotional development for the children in our lives, whether they are our own children or students or just children that we interact with in the community. Children are extremely observant, and so they’re learning from the adults in their lives about emotions and relationships not just by what we say, but also by what we do.

Why is it hard for adults to understand and respond to children’s intense emotions?

There are at least three reasons why children’s emotions can be very difficult for adults to understand and respond to in patient, nurturing ways. First, children tend to react to their emotions, and the younger and less emotionally mature they are, the more immediate and intense their emotional reactions are likely to be. As a caregiver or parent, it’s hard to help children think through their response to powerful emotions because you may only have a nanosecond to respond before there’s an eruption of loud, intense screams or acting out behaviors, like hitting or throwing something. So, often caregivers and parents are left to clean up after the situation has already spun a bit out of control, which is stressful and frustrating.

Second, children’s behavioral responses to their emotions may not make sense when viewed through an adult lens. Consider a child who feels lonely and sad about being left out. A common sense approach to feelings of loneliness and isolation in an adult may involve kindly reaching out to loved ones for support. Children, on the other hand, may act out with challenging behaviors that have the opposite effect of what they desire–Yelling and screaming at someone generally doesn’t make them want to spend more time with you! When the behaviors aren’t clearly connected to the feelings, adults’ frustrations often grow deeper.

Third, adults often forget to view children’s emotion through a developmental lens. Cognitive knowledge that children have a more limited ability to manage intense emotions is one thing–holding onto that understanding when a child is “overreacting” (from an adult lens) is another! This is why it’s so important for adults to learn about normal child development in terms of how children process emotions and understand the needs of others. (One great resource for this is found in the Parent Toolkit, which offers a grade-by-grade overview of children’s social and emotional development from Pre-K through 12th grade). Without this knowledge–or when the knowledge flies out the window in an emotionally-charged situation–adults may place unrealistic expectations on children’s ability to manage their emotions.

How can adults best support children’s social and emotional development?

Focusing on supporting children’s social and emotional development is an identified protective factor against child abuse. Some of the ways that adults can support children’s social and emotional development within families, in organizations that serve children, and in the broader community include the following:

In the family:

  • Parents and caregivers can learn about the stages of children’s social and emotional development and consider how their child’s experiences and behaviors are impacted by their developmental stage.
  • Parents and caregivers can help children identify and label the emotions they are experiencing. They can help children understand that feelings are understandable and make sense given the circumstances.
  • Parents and caregivers can help children learn to self-regulate their emotions, such as by teaching children self-soothing strategies and taking time to think through their choices, especially when they’re feeling intense emotions.

In organizations that serve children:

  • Professionals can show support for children’s emotional development by displaying books and posters that show different emotions.
  • Professionals can be proactive in teaching children relationship skills and emotional management strategies, such as through lessons on practicing kindness and managing anger appropriately.
  • Professionals can make the most of “teaching moments” that arise when conflicts between children arise, so that they can help guide the children to work toward a solution that honors each child’s emotions and needs.

In the broader community:

  • Consumers can advocate for media messages that support children’s social and emotional development. For example, if a TV show sends the message that “Boys shouldn’t cry,” community members can call the TV station to advocate for shows that convey messages that support the emotional development of all children.
  • Adults can offer one another support when children are displaying intense emotions in public. For example, if a child is having a tantrum in the grocery store, other adults can offer to help or simply offer some encouragement to the child’s parent, such as by saying, “I know it’s hard, but you’re handling this situation as calmly as you can,” or “Kids’ emotions can be really hard on their parents. Keep up the good work.”

A strong commitment to understanding and honoring children’s social and emotional development is an important protective factor against child maltreatment because it honors the importance of childhood as a unique phase of life in which children learn to bridge their inner emotional world with the social world around them. As adults, we have opportunities to help guide and nurture children into become adults with the maturity to regulate their emotions and build and maintain strong, positive relationships with others. What a gift it is to be able to offer this kind of support to the children in our lives!

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