You can help your child smooth the rough edges of their temperament and manage emotions by doing three things:
- Observe and acknowledge their emotions, whatever they are
- Collaborate with them to navigate challenges
- Arrange experiences that stretch their abilities just the right amount
The Full Story
Your child flashes a smile or gets excited about something just like you would. Your friends exclaim, “She’s just like her mama! I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Most of the time you feel proud of your child and yourself at these moments. But not always.
What if your child is quick to anger or prone to anxiety, just like you? Your hope for your child is that she could be a little less like you — or like any other member of the family who has struggled with managing emotions. You’re thinking to yourself, “Could we please arrange for this apple to fall a little farther from the tree?”
Is that possible? How much influence do we have over our child’s developing personality?
To answer this question, we need a little background on how our brains experience and process emotion. Our emotional reactions are the product of two parts of our brain: the lower and upper limbic systems. Think of the lower limbic system as the home of “raw” emotion triggered by senses. The upper limbic system is where the brain’s “council” meets and decides how to interpret the emotions we’re experiencing and how we want to respond.
The lower and upper limbic systems participate in a lifelong dance. Our personalities evolve as this dance takes on new tempos and directions. Your child will smooth the rough edges of her temperament depending on which turns this dance takes. And parents are the most important dance instructors a child has.
So, dance instructors, here are three strategies for your lessons:
1. Observe and acknowledge your child’s emotions, whatever they are
Behaviors are a choice. Emotions are not. Start by closely observing your child’s emotions. What exactly is she feeling? Why might she be feeling that way?
Then, acknowledge your child’s emotions out loud with words like these:
- “Yeah, the doctor’s office can feel kinda scary.”
- “I bet you’re frustrated that you can’t find that Lego piece!”
- “Oh, I know how you’d loooove to be able to stay up a little later and play.”
And then wait a moment. Don’t jump to problem-solving yet. Let your child hear and have an opportunity to respond to your acknowledgment. You want your child to feel heard.
Also, as you acknowledge your child’s emotion, you may also want to teach her the names of various emotions. This will give her more power over them.
2. Collaborate with your child to navigate challenges
During the preschool years, your child’s lower limbic system is more fully formed than her upper limbic system. She’s fully capable of feelings like terror and frustration, but she’s only beginning to learn how to evaluate and respond to her feelings.
Your job is to help her develop her upper limbic capacity. You can’t do that by telling her what to do. Rather, you have to jump-start and model the kinds of limbic conversations she’ll eventually need to have on her own.
“Yeah, it’s really frustrating when you can’t find something you’re looking for. I wonder where that Lego piece could be … Would you like help looking for it? … [later, after not finding it] … Well, it looks like we’re not going to find it now. When I lose something, sometimes I just stop looking for it and then — poof! — it appears later. That might happen with your Lego piece. I wonder, is there another piece you could use? What do you think you should do now?”
When you talk this way, you’re modeling the conversation she’ll eventually need to have with herself. You’re teaching her how to have that conversation.
Of course, your child’s behaviors sometimes negatively impact others. When this happens, calmly point out the impact. “When you stomp your feet on the ground, it wakes up your baby sister.” See if you can get in a conversation about other people’s feelings and needs. Your child may not respond immediately, but she is more more likely to modify negative behavior if she understands its impact on others.1
3. Arrange experiences that stretch your child’s abilities just the right amount
Remember math class? If a problem was too easy, you were bored and didn’t learn much. If a problem was too hard, you couldn’t do it and you didn’t learn anything. You learned the most from problems that were neither too easy nor too hard — they stretched you just the right amount.
Learning to manage emotions is the same way for your child. You can help your child master her emotions by arranging experiences that are neither too easy nor too hard.
Let’s say your child is anxious about social situations and has difficulty making friends. You have another family with kids her age coming over to your house. It will be hard for her — she may run and hide in her room.
You might try something like this: You know your child loves the family dog. She’s proud and comfortable around him. Tell your child that the other kids would probably love to meet the dog. Have her plan how she’d like to introduce the dog to your guests.
This particular approach might or might not work. The point is to keep seeking out right-sized experiences — finding the zone that stretches your child the right amount at the right time. Judging what’s right in any moment is more art than science.
As Lao Tzu wrote more than 2,500 years ago, “A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.”2 These are words of wisdom for dealing with emotions at any age. Remember them and you can help your child learn early in life about the positive power of their emotions, as well as how to avoid the pain that arises from letting them run untamed.
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- Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, p. 98.