The Big Emotions of Little Ones

Children’s emotional development is a critical aspect of their overall maturation with lifelong consequences. A child’s social-emotional development during the first 5 years of life will affect their ability to function in school, respond to stress, adapt to change, persist in challenging situations, and form meaningful relationships throughout their life. And yet, there is often an emphasis on promoting children’s cognitive growth in the early years and limited attention to strengthening their capacity to manage emotions.

Every parent wishes to raise their child to be well adjusted, happy, contributing members of society.  An adult who enjoys meaningful relationships and fulfilling work undoubtedly has at their core a well-developed capacity for emotional regulation. This includes the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and understand emotions in others, and to manage strong emotions in a constructive way.

How do we support children in their first few years to develop the emotional regulation capacities necessary for success during the rest of their lives? During infancy, babies rely on sensitive and responsive caregiving to modulate their emotional states. Toddlers and preschoolers have more complex needs and learning to manage their emotions is one of the most challenging tasks of these early years.  Those who are given the necessary support and tools to successfully accomplish this task will have a rich emotional repertoire and an equally large emotional vocabulary. They have developed the capacity to verbalize how they feel rather than “melting down” or “acting out,” and are also able to inhibit expressions of emotions that are inappropriate for the situation.

So what tools should we provide our children to help them manage their emotions and subsequently their behaviors? The following are some ways in which parents and caregivers can help to optimize their child’s social-emotional development:

  1. Allow children to feel and express a full range of feelings, including negative feelings. This includes allowing our children to see us experience a range of emotions that are expressed in a healthy manner. When a child’s actions upset us, we can express “when you push your sister, it makes mommy feel disappointed.”
  2. Support children to reflect on their feelings and behaviors. Once the storm of emotions has settled, find a quiet moment to sit with your child. Help them to connect the dots for what took place; identify the link between their feelings, behaviors, and the consequences of those behaviors. Brainstorm together on better or alternative ways of handling a similar situation the next time around.
  3. Allow children to express difficult feelings without jumping in to offer a solution or a distraction. Instead, simply let them know that you see what they are experiencing, e.g. “I can see that it makes you really frustrated when you have to wait a long time for a turn.”
  4. Avoid minimizing feelings expressed by children. If a child expresses fear, worry, or hurt, they simply need to know that their feelings are valid. If we tell kids things such as “there is nothing to be scared of,” or “it’s ok,” we are giving them the message that their own true feelings are not to be trusted. Children need to know that everyone is entitled to their own feelings and reactions.
  5. Help children to develop the necessary language for expressing their feelings by being their narrators. Children initially don’t have the vocabulary and lack enough understanding of causality to express what they feel and why. Put your observations of their feelings and experiences into words so that over time, they will learn to do the same. For example, “when your brother took your marker it made you so angry.”
  6. Remain unruffled in the face of the emotional storms your children experience and don’t feel personally responsible for having to prevent them or get them under control. Children go through various stages of separation and individuation with strong desires for doing things that are out of the range of their abilities or simply not an available option. There is no way to ensure that they will not become unglued at apparently trivial matters. The only thing to do is to remain calm and ride out the storm, allowing them to know that you are there for them as they work to recollect themselves.
  7. Teach, practice, and model coping strategies. There are many strategies for coping with difficult feelings, such as taking a break, doing a physical activity, and deep breathing. Find a strategy that your child is more inclined to do and engage in a regular practice of it outside of challenging situations. Model using a coping strategy yourself in moments of frustration and reinforce any attempts your child makes to use a strategy to de-escalate.
  8. Talk about household rules, limits, and reasons why there are enforced. As children grow, they can have a voice in determining appropriate boundaries and consequences. This allows them to learn about problem solving when faced with discrepancies between what they want the options that are feasible.
  9. Use play, stories, and art to support children in expressing their feelings, wishes, and conflicts. Allow these experiences to become a fun open-ended way to express and act out anything in their hearts and minds. Play and art offers wonderful opportunities for emotional expression, conflict resolution, and problem solving.
  10. It is tempting to use time-outs when our children express emotions or have behaviors that are over the top and unacceptable. However, it is in these very moments of anger, defiance, or limit testing that our children need our calm presence and guidance the most. Using a time-in instead of a time-out means making a choice to attune to the difficult feelings of the child in that moment in order to help them work through it. It is the simple act of sitting with your child and empathizing with how they feel, without changing your stance on the boundaries you’ve placed or the behaviors you have deemed unacceptable. It allows children to connect and feel that their needs are being considered, even if the ultimate outcome does not change.

The work of supporting children to develop their capacity for emotional regulation asks much of us as parents. It is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, as it requires for us to manage our own feelings of anger, hurt, frustration, disappointment, etc. in the best way possible. We have to be able to successfully managing our own emotions during points when our children seem determined to push our buttons until we reach a tipping point. If we can use our own tools for coping, remaining calm, and not taking things personally, we can build a solid foundation upon which our children can develop their own coping strategies effectively.

Play – the foundation of learning

Having worked in the field of Early Intervention for over 15 years, there is a trend that is becoming more pronounced with each passing year as our lives become more deeply entrenched with technology at every level. The important role of simple open-ended play in children’s lives is diminishing and it is becoming replaced by structured and planned activities or screen time. Children are being asked to put aside play at an earlier point in their lives as the kindergarten curriculum has become focused on structured teaching. And yet, research suggests that play is a biological necessity and that the forces which drive play lying deep in the ancient survival centers of the brain.

For children with developmental differences, parents tend to focus on promoting cognitive, language, and social skills before focusing on play skills. For typical children, parents feel a pressure to keep children entertained, busy, or “learning.” In both situations, there is inadequate appreciation for the depth and breadth of learning that occurs when children are just provided a safe environment in which they can play without interruptions or instructions.

What is it about play that makes it an invaluable part of a child’s life? It is truly the work of childhood to engage in play. At one level, there is no greater goal than just the value of allowing children to do what they do best, just to be in the moment and fully immersed in their self-directed goals. But play is also essential to the physical, social, and emotional well-being of children. Within the safety of their own space, children recreate and gain mastery over their daily experiences. They try on different roles, express their views and feelings, conquer their fears, problem-solve, negotiate, and create. Play actually changes the neurons at the front of our brain. As Jaak Panksep of Washington State University describes it, “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.”

When children play, they use materials at their disposal to symbolize imagined or real life events. This use of symbols is an important aspect of cognitive development and helps to set the foundation for reading and math skills. Putting together a play narrative is the beginnings of formulating a story and therefore key for reading and comprehension skills. Play that involves puzzles and building helps to support visual-spatial and logical thinking skills.

Play with peers or siblings provides children with the opportunity to develop social skills. They must learn to consider the feelings and perspectives of others, to cooperate, negotiate, problem-solve, and resolve conflicts. Within the conflicts that occur during play, children develop their capacity for recognizing, verbalizing, and managing their emotions. They learn how to respond to the emotions and actions of others with respect to their own feelings.

A major aspect of play is also the level of physical activity involved. Children need to discharge their emotions and stress hormones in a physical manner, making it less likely that they will have tantrums. The physical nature of play helps to promote the development of gross motor skills, muscle strength, and balance. Furthermore, physical activity has also been shown to change the brain. According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.

One of the main reasons parents struggle with creating open ended play time for their children is that they feel this requires their time and active involvement, something which understandably parents have in short supply. While there is definitely a need and for special time set aside for parents and children to connect through one-on-one interactions each day, playing with your child does not have to be something you are responsible to engage in for prolonged periods of time each day.  If you are interested in learning more about how to foster your children’s ability to engage in self-directed play, I highly encourage you to check out janetlansbury.com and the following post as a good starting place: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/04/help-my-toddler-cant-play-without-me/

If you have a child with special needs, support the development of play skills is just as essential as promoting language, cognition, self-help and motor skills. Furthermore, play is a natural vehicle for teaching across all domains of development. Teaching skills to children through play capitalizes on the natural positive emotions that are present to fuel meaningful learning. Make sure you have a team in place that recognizes the value of play as a foundation for learning.

The importance of exercise in children’s development

Most of us know about the beneficial impact of exercise on our health and that these same effects contribute to the well-being of our children. However, there are also numerous benefits of exercise on the cognitive development of children, including promoting their ability to attend and learn. There are multiple studies documenting the positive impact of exercise on children’s ability to attend and learn.

Studies have examined the impact of children engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise compared to peers who were not enrolled in fitness programs. Children were not only more physically fit as a result of the exercise but also demonstrated more “attentional inhibition,” or the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand. There is also evidence that kids who exercise regularly have more activity in the area of the brain associated with executive functioning (i.e. planning, organization, initiation, emotional control, etc.).  Children who are more physical fit have also been found to have a larger hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory function, and perform better on tests of memory than less-fit peers.  Children with higher levels of aerobic fitness have been seen to perform with more accuracy and sometimes faster reaction times on tests requiring concentration and attentional control.

Exercise can be used as part of a comprehensive treatment package for kids with Autism, in that it has been shown to reduce aggression, stereotyped and self-injurious behavior and purposeless wandering. Children who have a lower level of stereotypic and disruptive behaviors are in turn more prepared to learn and are more attuned to their environment.

Given the multitude of benefits and minimal risks and costs associated with it, regular exercise should be something we strive to include in our kid’s daily routine. This is especially important in the face of dwindling time devoted to exercise and movement while kids are at school. The best forms of exercise for kids are things that they enjoy, and can be as simple as free, unstructured, physical play. More organized sports can be beneficial in additional ways (e.g. social-emotional) for children who are interested and motivated to participate in them. For kids who are not naturally inclined towards engaging in intense physical activity, an additional investment is necessary on the part of parents. If you can devote the time to create a fun and meaningful experience which incorporates movement and exercise, chances are your kids will be a little more willing and motivated to engage in similar activities in the future.

When a child “doesn’t listen”

Every individual has the drive to learn and succeed, so if your child is not following through on a request made of them,  stop and assess whether this is truly willful or because there may be a missing skill set needed to make the necessary connections. It doesn’t matter how great of an incentive you give someone, if what you are asking them to do is beyond their capabilities at that time, they will not succeed. The experience will further leave both a parent and child feeling frustrated and dejected. It is not always easy to see all aspects of a child’s abilities. Individuals with autism can have areas in which they excel beyond their typically developing peers. It is easy to expect that a child who has receptive and expressive language will follow through on an instruction given to them. However, at the time the instruction is given, a child may be experiencing sensory overload from the sights and sounds of a particular environment. They may interpret what you have said to them literally and not take action in the manner you intended. They may not have the self-awareness, capacity for assertion, and vocabulary to express that they do not understand or are having difficulty doing what you have asked of them. Without the necessary ability to verbalize how they are feeling and what they need, a child’s only means of communicating is through their behaviors.  A behavior may be externalized (i.e. verbal refusal, running away) or it could be internalized (i.e. withdrawal, non-responsiveness). You will maximize a child’s ability for following through on an instruction when a child appears calm, regulated, and attentive.

Some questions you may ask yourself the next time you ask a child to perform a task:

1. Do you have the child’s full attention before giving an instruction?
2. Is there any incentive or motivation for him/her to complete the task, other than because it is being asked of him/her?
3. Does your child appear to be overstimulated or conversely under-stimulated at the time when you are asking them to do something?
4. Are you giving an instruction that is clear, using only a few words that explicitly state what are you are requesting, and stating what you want rather than what you don’t want?
5. Are you providing your child with the scaffolding that may be needed to complete a task that is slightly beyond their current ability level?
6. If you are asking a child to stop engaging in a highly preferred activity to complete a less preferred or non-preferred ask, have you provided sufficient priming (i.e. a count down of how much more time they have on a preferred task before that have to make the transition)?
7. Does your child require a visual to understand that they can go back to a preferred activity once a less preferred activity is completed?
8. Does your child need the use of a timer to understand that a task with no natural end point, does in fact have a stopping point?
9. When your child does not listen or follow through, do you attend to her/his signals and behaviors to determine what he or she is trying to communicate to you?
10. Do you yourself model the skills that you expect your child to demonstrate (i.e. consistent follow through and responsiveness)?

Promoting your child’s social skills through successful play dates

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6/20/12
Given the challenges children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) face in navigating the social world, setting up and facilitating play dates from an early age is one of the ways in which you can be instrumental in their growth and development.  In order for a play date to be a successful experience and one that actually promotes your child’s social skills, it must involve structure, adult facilitation, and the interactions in which both children are having fun and engaging in reciprocal exchanges.Here are some key elements for creating a successful play date experience for your child:A successful play date begins with planning

  • Determine which child will be an appropriate match for your child, based on feedback from school staff or personal observations of the children.
  • Prime your child for the play date. Begin talking about it several days in advance and use a calendar to visually represent the date and name of peer coming over.  Use picture of peer if available to prepare your child for play date.
  • Help your child plan the play date by having them generate ideas for activities peer may like. Your child could also be supported to call peer in advance and ask what activities they enjoy.
  • Use a visual system before play date (e.g. lists of activities, pictures of activities) to prepare your child for what they will be doing during the play date.
  • You may want to review or visually represent “dos” and “don’ts” for the children before the play date begins.

Keep it short

  • A short play date that is well planned and structured will be much more effective than a long play date where there down time and an opportunity for the children to move into solitary play or negative interactions.
  • If a short play date makes it more difficult for a parent to bring their child over, offer to pick up both children from the school and have the parent of the peer pick up the child after 30 minutes of the child being at your home.
  • Keeping a play date short will ensure success for both children and makes it more likely that there will be future play dates which could be of gradually longer duration.

Keep it structured

  • Plan structured activities in advance.  Activities that have built in rules (i.e. board games) and with which your child is familiar are a good place to start.  It is also importance to have options of a few different structured activities to allow for children to negotiate and agree upon one that may be of mutual interest to both.
  • Use a timer to provide the children with clear guidelines regarding the end point of games and activities, to prepare them for transitions, and for the conclusion of the play date.
  • Ensure that the activities that will be play during play date are those with which your child is familiar and successful.  These do not necessarily need to be highly preferred activities, as socialization is about engaging in activities that are preferred by others, as well as those that are self-selected.
  • Use games and activities that promote cooperation, such as an arts and craft activity where children must take turns with some of the same materials. The pieces for an activity can also be divided between two children so that each has to ask the other for the desired piece (i.e. when doing a puzzle or building a Lego structure). Remember that cooperation and interaction can be nonverbal as well as verbal.

Plan for downtime

  • Even if there are short gaps in between planned activities, it is helpful to have a plan of how to keep children engaged during this time.  It may be helpful to play a CD of children’s music, have children assist with the cleanup and set up of activities, or have paper and pencil ready for children to play a quick game of tic tac toe while they wait.

Review how it went

  • After the play date is over, review how it went with your child. Ask him or her about the parts of the play date that were successful and parts that could be improved upon.
  • Encourage your child to generate suggestions for how the play date could be different in the future.
  • Have your child rate their subjective feeling of success about the play date and guide them to form a realistic picture that helps develop their self-awareness and feelings of self-efficacy.