Crying. Screaming. Whining. Moping. Melting down. Pestering. Throwing a tantrum. Pitching a fit. We have many ways to describe a child’s emotional sorrows: the anger, desire, frustration, fury, sadness, and loneliness experienced by the young children in our lives. As parents and providers, we are not-so-subtly pressured to get these moments under control. The sideways glances while we are out in public, or the raised eyebrows of judgment imploring a tighter reign over our reckless and disrespectful lot. And then there is the more powerful internal drive to fix. We often hold the power to bandage the woes – the desired cookie, the delayed bedtime, the ability to walk instead of ride. Yet what do children experience when we fix? And is the fix always truly a fix?
What our children need most from us when they experience intense feelings of sadness, sorrow, anger, or disappointment is our empathy and our connection. When I have had a long and difficult day, and I share the woes of that day with my loved ones, I want to hear, “Wow – that sounds miserable. Can I get you some tea?” (Now that you mention it, tea sounds lovely!) If instead I hear, “It wasn’t really that bad. You’re exaggerating.” (Wait, really?) Or perhaps, “Are you done yet? Let’s go fold the laundry now.” (What about my tea?) Or even, “You think that’s bad?? I’ll tell you about something really awful.” (When did this become about you? And where is my tea??) Thankfully, I have a supportive family on all sides that hear my woes and let me vent my frustrations. And do you know what happens to my spirit when I feel heard? I soften – the rough and angry edges, named and acknowledged, cease to consume me.
When we accompany a child in a moment of intense emotions, we offer a reassuring and affirming presence, validating the experience and offering to the child, This may feel overwhelming, but I will be with you through this strong experience. Honoring the emotional intensity with connection and empathy aids a child in the process of building emotional literacy.
The second thing our children need as soon as we offer empathy and connection is our steadfastness. Honoring a child means affirming limits for them. To bandage the woes with quick fixes disrespects the child’s need for solid ground. If the rules keep changing, how are they supposed to figure out the way life works? For example, if a child wants a cookie at the store, I mean really wants a cookie, and communicates that desire by yelling, screaming, or crying, we could offer the quick fix and give the child the cookie. (Will they want a glass of milk? Ha! Sorry…I couldn’t resist!) But what we do in this moment is to affirm to the child that the way to get her needs met is to yell, scream, and cry. I am all for cooperation, compromise, and dialogue over differing opinions – teaching children to voice their desires in socially appropriate ways is one of our highest challenges as early childhood professionals. But we disrespect a child’s desire to learn the ground rules for communication when offer quick fixes to a child’s emotional experiences. When we bandage a woe with a fix, we take away the child’s power to manage their own emotions, and we make them dependent on others to solve their emotional problems.
The Pain of Separating. Every child has periods of difficulty separating with loved ones. And who can blame them? I feel sad when I have to leave the ones that I love. And developmentally, children are learning that when you leave, you will come back – this is something they need continuous experience with in order to internalize. Some children cycle through tearful goodbyes repeatedly through their early years. Separating and reuniting is one of the foundational means by which we develop trust. For parents and providers alike, tearful goodbyes tug the heartstrings!
What children need is a thoughtful, meaningful goodbye followed by a respectful response to their reactions. Prolonged exits, or exits that start and stop can impede the child’s ability to fully feel the emotions, honor them, and move through them. Once the parent has left, children need a trusted adult who will say, “I see you are very sad about Mommy leaving. It can be hard to say goodbye. Mommy will come back in a few hours. I will stay with you while you feel sad.” We move our bodies close to the crying child and wait. Does the child want to be picked up? Does the child want space? For verbal children, we have a phrase we always ask at Abundant Life: “What would be helpful, friend?” because what would be helpful for me might not be the same thing that is helpful for you. I don’t always want a hug when I’m sad. Sometimes I want to be by myself. For non-verbal children, we still ask the question, and we wait for body language to signal how to help. “I see you are sad, Desmond. Would you like me to pick you up?” (I hold my hands out to show that I am read to pick him up if he would like.) Along with time to snuggle or space to be alone, we have a few other supports available at Abundant Life to help support a child’s transition away from parents. Upon enrollment, children bring pictures of their families which I laminate, making them available to children when they feel sad. Tekoa went through a period where it was tough for her to leave Daddy in the mornings, so she would go get his picture and bring it to the breakfast table with a pile of play food – he “ate” breakfast with us. This visual connection honored and supported her emotional development.
What children don’t need is distractions. It can be so easy to offer a book or a ball when a child is upset over her parent’s leaving. When we distract, we short-circuit her process of feeling the emotion, and we send the message that being okay is more important than feeling integrated. No matter how tempting, we must always work to support young children’s emotional processes by accompanying their feelings without distracting from them as well as resisting the urge to bandage the problem. As difficult as it is, sitting with a child through a period of intense emotions honors their spirits, and paves the way for emotional wholeness. And emotional wholeness is the foundation for successful relationships later in life.