The transition back to school has been a hot topic over the past few weeks. In my conversations with thousands of parents, the greatest concerns have been around their child’s emotional well-being during these challenging times. Emotions are how we derive meaning form the world around us. This feels like the perfect time to clarify what to expect in emotional development at various ages, as parents guide children on their journey to becoming emotionally intelligent.
This phase is all about attachment and developing a sense of trust and security. Parents need to help their babies feel that the world is a safe place. You can achieve this by being calm, soothing, responsive and consistent.
Toddlers are developing a sense of being a separate person and feeling in control. They know exactly what they want and when they want it. Tantrums are likely and a natural stage of development. The trick is to strike that fine balance between enabling the child to feel in charge and validating their emotions, whilst at the same time keeping to your boundaries and not giving up your authority as a parent.
This age group can feel very frustrated and considerable time and patience needs to go into helping them self-regulate their emotions. They appear capable of doing so much, however often feel quite small and powerless. They can get very physical and have major meltdowns for things that seem inconsequential to adults. Parents can help by empathising, acknowledging and naming in words emotions such as anger, sadness, fear or frustration.
This age group are learning an immense amount academically, socially and about life skills. They need to feel competent and motivated and begin to identify what it is that they are good at. Parents can help boost self-esteem and resilience and assist them to become better at things they are trying to master.
Our understanding of what is going on in a teenager’s brain has evolved in the last few decades as neurological scans advance. Teenage brains undergo major rewiring, particularly the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive functioning skills: logic, reasoning & thinking about the consequences of actions. This explains why much of the emotional behaviour of a child in their early teens, seems to parallel that of toddlers. The role of a parent is to act as a sounding board and provide a safe space where children feel they can openly talk, without fearing the reaction of their parents.
Older teens are meant to become self-reliant, so they are able to manage in the world independently. It can feel like they are constantly pulling away, yet they need to develop their own beliefs, values and opinions. Parents can help teens to establish what kind of person they are and who they want to become, so that they begin to understand themselves better.
Children of all ages should know that all feelings are acceptable. They should never be wrong for having a feeling, even if their behaviour as a result of those emotions, needs to be redirected. When parents understand and listen, children feel respected, valued and develop resilience. Responding to a child’s emotional needs is probably the most important thing parents can do.