Dr Justin Coulson is a three-time bestselling author, a TEDx speaker, and one of Australia's most popular relationships and parenting experts. In this article he explains why our little ones have big feelings.
All parents know those dreadful moments when our children seemingly lose all control over their emotions, resulting in big tantrums.
To help parents understand these situations better, I want to explore the developmental realities that we are up against that are the root of their big feelings.
1. They can’t use their words
Just above our left ear the part of our brain is called our left temporal parietal lobe. This is where all our speech and language is located.
When a child starts to get emotional, the blood that keeps the neurotransmitters firing in this part of the brain disappears from there and goes into the middle of the brain, the limbic system, which is the emotional core of the brain.
When our children don’t express what their emotions are about, we often demand “use your words!” Yet, the blood has rushed into the emotional core of their brain, so the neurotransmitters don’t work as efficiently in their speech and language centre and no words can be formed.
You may even have experienced this as an adult: “I am so worked up right now I don’t even know what to say!” When emotions run high, words often seem to fail us.
2. They have limited capacity for regulating their emotions
The front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is helping us to think, plan, strategise and, importantly, regulate our emotions. As a child, this part of our brain is really underdeveloped.
Children begin to be able to use this part of their brain at about the age of two or three. Only at around the age of eight or nine is when this part of our brain is fully developed.
With blood rushing from both the temporal parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex into the limbic system when feelings are running high, our children struggle to regulate their emotions.
They can’t regulate their behaviours. As a consequence of not being able to regulate their emotions, children struggle to regulate their behaviour.
Even as an adult we still run into this often when we feel really emotional that we struggle to control our actions.
3. Theory of mind
Theory of mind is a fancy psychological term that simply describes the ability to see something from someone else’s perspective.
Here is the great challenge: your little children do not have theory if mind until about the age of five, with some recent research even suggesting it might be six or seven. Up until then it’s all about ego.
For example, you may have noticed that young children are often not particularly good at sharing.
From a developmental point of view, that’s completely normal and appropriate, as they don’t have theory of mind. They see something, they want it, and they don’t understand that another person may also have an agenda for this thing.