From the latest scientific research, we are learning that the young brain is developing at a rapid pace. Most of young children’s brain function is already developed by the age of 3.
According to brain researchers at the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second during the first years of life. From birth, the brain awaits the introduction of new experiences that will shape an individual for life. Social and emotional development is one of those experiences.
Many parents and caregivers may not realize the importance of social and emotional development in young children. The term “social emotional development” refers to the ability of a child from birth to age 5 to form close and secure relationships with adults and peers. Brain researchers explain that emotional memory stored in the brain during the first five years of life is lasting.
Research is also telling us that children are more successful in school and life if they feel good about themselves and can get along with others. It makes sense — children who are troubled, anxious, angry, tired or sad will have a more difficult time completing tasks at school and home than the children who are more confident and at ease with others.
Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping children to learn to manage their emotions and behavior. But first, we need to reflect on how we were parented in our youth.
Parents and caregivers need to understand that it’s not about the child as much as it’s about themselves and how they deal with their own feelings and emotions. The ways we were guided or punished when we were children affects how we feel about what to do with children whose behavior is challenging to us. Our recollections of past childhood experiences may include thoughts of how our families allowed us to express ourselves without criticism. Or upon reflection, those memories may have been filled with disapproval, threats or physical punishment.
Adults need to understand that their own thoughts and feelings about how they were raised as a child affects how they will, in turn, raise or care for young children. When adults are able to acknowledge and validate their own feelings of events that took place that may have been hurtful, they are in a better position to understand their interactions with others. This is a process called self-reflection. Through self-reflection, adults can leave unwanted thoughts and feelings at the door when interacting with young children.
It’s hard to imagine that young children could be learning anything about how they feel when they seem like they spend most of their time sleeping, playing or pooping. But they are learning important skills that they will use for the rest of their lives. It is up to us to create positive emotional environments for our children. Here are some suggestions from The Center for Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning that you can use with your children.
One of the most important things that you can do for a young child is to be responsive to their needs by loving and nurturing them. Holding a crying baby reinforces the bond and the relationship with the child. It’s a myth that you spoil a baby by letting him or her cry. When infants and young children are held and soothed, they learn that they can depend on you for support and security.
There are other good habits to practice with young children to help them begin to learn about their feelings and how to express themselves appropriately. For one, talk about feelings. This may not come naturally to many adults since we learned at an early age to stifle our emotions. We were told to not get upset or cry, and to keep it to ourselves. Children need to hear that they don’t have to feel ashamed of their feelings and that feelings are neither right nor wrong, but a result of what we are thinking. Simply listen to your child nonjudgmentally and acknowledge their feelings.
Be a good role model for expressing strong or intense feelings. Your first reaction may be to yell about the spilled milk. But remembering the old saying, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” will go a long way when teaching children how to handle a crisis in the future. Stay calm and show them how to effectively solve the problem.
Understand that children, like adults, have a temperament. Everyone knows someone who is easy-going and lets things “roll off their back.” And there are others that seem to allow everything to upset them. Everyone is born with an instinctive way of reacting to life. Parents and caregivers can help all children learn how to handle what life throws at them in an acceptable way.
Parents and caregivers are encouraged to practice some of the following strategies with young children to form a strong relationship. Hold your baby or child close. Mom’s hugs and kisses are a natural way to form a loving bond between parent and child. Dads can cuddle and hold their children when they read or talk before bed. Read stories and talk about feelings. Make puppets with different expressions. Ask the children questions or share your thoughts about how the puppet might be feeling. Play peek-a-boo. The silly game of hiding behind a blanket sends messages to baby and young children that you may leave, but will always come back.
Other strategies include singing songs about feelings. Instead of singing “When You’re Happy and You Know It,” try “When You’re Sad and You Know It, Get a Hug,” or “When You’re Cranky and You Know It, Find Your Teddy,” etc.
Or, try making a soft, cozy space for young children to spend some quiet time when they are overwhelmed. Sometimes we all need to find a place to sit down and relax.
We are often telling young children what to do. It’s more important to give them the words to express strong feelings and tell them or show them how to express their feelings and handle it in a healthy way. It’s OK for adults or children to express strong feelings, but it’s not OK for them to express them in a hurtful way. Teach feeling words to express themselves. There are more words than just “sad” and “happy.” Teach children words like: calm, shy, frustrated, bored, silly, etc. They may not understand these words at first, but over time children will benefit from a “feelings vocabulary.”
Being involved in loving relationships is the way children come to know the world and their place in it. This comfort and protection provides a barrier against tough times. It is through these relationships that children learn how to trust others and find the confidence to take risks in life.
Promoting social and emotional development is too important to be left to chance. There is a growing body of research that warns if our society does not help children learn how to get along with others and express their feelings appropriately, these children are likely to fail academically, drop out of school, or develop mental health problems. Parents and caregivers can do their part in raising healthy, well-balanced children in a world that seems to be getting crazier by the minute.