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Supporting children’s big emotions

Toddler lying on the floor
Credit: iStock.com/Marina_Di

At times, the speed that children’s behaviour can be overtaken by those big emotions can come as quite a surprise for parents. 

One minute everything is pretty normal, and suddenly, something that seems pretty insignificant for Mum or Dad, becomes a full blown, down on the ground, legs flailing temper tantrum. For others, they can see the warning signs brewing that their little one is about to have a temper tantrum of epic proportions, but are not sure how to prevent it.  

Understanding what is going on and more importantly, knowing how to deal with those parenting moments is a big part of moving from frustrated to confident as a parent; not to mention a happier one.  

Small children can, and do, have big emotions. Learning how to cope with big emotions and new social situations takes time and lots of practice for little ones to become masterful. 

Putting children’s behaviours into perspective; understanding what is going on and learning some simple, effective strategies goes a long way to taking the frustration out of these challenging moments.
 

Asking a three-year-old to share a much-loved toy with someone else is a really hard thing for some children to do. Put into adult perspectives, how many of us would readily hand over our car keys to a complete stranger, simply because we were asked to?
Dr Lesley Jones

There are a few basic things to remember in understanding children’s behaviours that can help keep things in perspective. These include:

Developmental immaturity

Remembering that young children are still developmentally immature. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to recognise that young children are inexperienced and sometimes they just don’t have a sophisticated understanding of how the world works.

It's also important to recognise that what parents and adults are asking young children, with limited life experience, is hard work for children.

It shouldn’t surprise us then when children become overwhelmed with what we are asking of them and of the way they are feeling, when confronted with complex social situations. Asking a three-year-old to share a much-loved toy with someone else is a really hard thing for some children to do.  Yet many adults don’t take the time to recognise just how difficult this is for young children.

Put into adult perspectives, how many of us would readily hand over our car keys to a complete stranger, simply because we were asked to?

That doesn’t mean parents just need to accept challenging behaviours.  There are a few things to understand and some simple strategies that help children (and parents) navigate those wonderful turbulent years between toddlerhood and middle childhood.

Check basic needs aren’t the problem.

Make sure your child’s behaviour is not because their basic needs are not being met. Children who are tired, hungry, or unwell cope less well than when these things are not an issue.

A basic need that children also need is ‘time in relationships’, and connecting with the important people in their lives, like parents.

Sometimes children’s acting out behaviours are the unhelpful ways that children will use to meet this need. It is helpful to ensure parents are taking the time just to 'be' with their children rather than wait until they 'have to be' present to deal with a challenging behaviour.

Children’s need, to be in connection with their families and loved ones, vary from one child to the next, but certainly it is worth reflecting to make sure you are being present and engaged in the moments with your children when ever you can be.

Have realistic expectations.

Have you considered what type of young adult you hope your child will become? Of course, most parents say they want their children to be independent, resilient, responsible etc.

These are all learned skills; skills that take lots of practise to become good at. Have you ever considered what independence looks like at three? What does responsibility look like at four?

As children experiment with the very skills and attributes their parents want most for them, it can look quite different to what it will eventually become.

When your three-year-old is frustratingly demanding “Me do it, me do it!” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is the building block of independence.

Your four-year-old’s attempt to clean their room, tidy up their own belongings or feed the cat, may not look exactly the way you intend them to look, but their initially clumsy attempts at managing such tasks, will assist in developing the skills for managing much more complex forms of responsibility, independence and resilience into their future.

The good news is there are a few simple things that you can do to help ‘teach’ your child the finer points of the socially responsible behaviours that most parents want for their children.

If we change out the notion of controlling or managing children’s poor behaviour to one of getting in front of the game, and actively teaching your children the skills to manage social situations well, we are well on the way to great outcomes for children and parents.

Make sure your expectations are made clear to children.

Often parents slip up when they assume children understand the expectations they have of them.

It is very common for children to have a different understanding of expectations than parents assume.

For example, a parent’s idea of tidying up the room can be very different to a child’s understanding of what ‘tidy’ means.

Making sure that parents are very clear and precise about what they mean can make a really big difference. For example, instead of asking a child to, “Tidy up their room”, be explicit.  “Matthew, can you go into your room and put your toys in the toy box, your dirty clothes in the wash basket in the laundry and your shoes in your wardrobe; thankyou.”

This gives the child a much clearer picture of what you actually want them to do and a much better chance of them being successful. 

Does your child know what a ‘tidy room’ looks like by your standards, does your child understand what ‘being gentle’ with the baby feels like by your expectations, or does your child understand what ‘stop whinging’ really sounds like. If you’re not sure, that's a good place to start. 
Dr Lesley Jones

Practice makes perfect.

Social behaviours are a learned skill and take time to get right.

If you have rules in your house, check that they are very clear and identify the behaviour you are trying to establish.

In checking if there might be room for your child to be unclear about what you mean, ask yourself does your child know what each rule or expectation: looks like, sounds like or feels like.

For example, does your child know what a ‘tidy room’ looks like by your standards, does your child understand what ‘being gentle’ with the baby feels like by your expectations, or does your child understand what ‘stop whinging’ really sounds like. If you’re not sure, that's a good place to start. 

Unpack your clear expectations, and practise what each looks like, sounds like or feels like with your child. In doing this you help the child build competencies in the right behaviours.

When things begin to go wrong you can remind them of what they are supposed to be doing. When you take the time to practise the desired behaviour with them you (and they) have a better chance of being able to correct behaviour when it begins to deteriorate.

For example when your three-year-old begins to whinge, you can say, “Uh-oh: Remember, we use our big girl voice; what does that sound like?”.

You can practise your preferred behaviour (also called a target behaviour) by making a game out of the practise.

Young children are hard wired for play and games, so it’s a natural vehicle to practise these important social skills.

Pretend to be getting ready for kindy, going to the shops, eating dinner, playing with the baby, playing nicely while Mum is on the phone. 

This allows your child to try out the new, better, behaviours at a time when there is no pressure and everyone is calm. This gives the child a much better chance of using the right behaviour when it really counts.

Often parents get caught in a ‘behavioural dance’, with children; repeating the same pattern of ‘behaviour and response’, over and over; even when it’s not working.

Not surprisingly, parents become frustrated and often feel a sense of guilt, and in the meantime children are not able to learn to replace a challenging behaviour with better options.

Feeling guilty is demoralising for parents and unnecessary.

If we think about children learning social behaviours in the same way we think about any other type of learning (such as reading and math), we can begin to put children’s behaviour and the parent’s role in supporting the learning into better perspective.

Shifting gears to become proactive about guiding and teaching social skills to young children is an empowering approach for parents and ultimately, and more importantly, more helpful for young children as they learn to negotiate the complex social world around them.

Dr Jones’ strategies for success

  • Set clear expectations. Children must know what each rule, routine and expectation looks like, sounds like and feels like. Make sure you describe the behaviour you want to see (not what you want to stop).
  • Visual rules and routines. Make the rules and routines visual in the house. Use photos, clip art or stick men drawings of the target behaviour to help give children visual cues for the right behaviours.
  • Reward effort where ever you can. ‘Catch them being good’, and celebrate along the way.
  • Stay positive because – you’ve got this! You need to have a teaching focus in supporting your child to become socially successful. Your child is looking to you for guidance and leadership.  
  • Practise makes perfect. Learning a new skill takes time and lots of practise. Practise outside of emotional time. Use games and pretend to practise doing all the social things your child finds tricky outside of when they need to do the right thing for real.
  • Your language is critical. When talking with children about their behaviour refrain from asking, ‘why’; in most cases they won’t really know. Instead replace ‘why’ questions with ‘what, when and how’ type questions. For example, “What should you be doing?,” “When do we?”, “How should we?” This gives your child a chance to rethink what they are currently doing and remember your expectations, rules and practice sessions.
  • For those children who don’t handle ‘No” well: Children who often display oppositional behaviour are trying to exercise and practise autonomy (which is normal and necessary). Saying ‘no’ to these children can escalate the situation dramatically. Try using a simple strategy of ‘conditional consent’. Try saying “Yes, after we…”, “Yes, when you…”,  “Yes, first we need to…”. Restricted choice is also a very effective strategy for these children. Decide on a range of things they can have control over e.g. don’t try to enforce what they will absolutely wear, but provide a range of choices (that you are happy with) and allow them to choose anything from this range. If food is an issue, use the same approach; they can choose what they want to eat from the selection that you have pre-decided on. Discuss the option with them and make it clear they have the power to choose.
  • Follow up and follow through. Your children don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do want to believe in your credibility and predictability. Follow through is important; if you say they will receive a reward (or a consequence) for a certain behaviour make sure you follow through. Don’t make empty promises or consequences you cannot enforce (e.g. no TV for a month or we'll go to the theme park if you’re good; when you know you will not be able to do this). Take the time to follow up with children about their behaviour as well; if it was a big enough deal to discuss expectations and have practice sessions, it should be a big enough deal to discuss and debrief on how the child has gone trying to do better (good and not so good) in a calm and rational way. This allows your child to see the same level of importance to the situation as you do and to refine the plan for next time.