Kristen, 4 years old, was with her Mom in a department store to buy diapers for her younger brother. A doll caught her attention, as they were about to pay. Kristen pulled her mom back to the aisle where she saw it. Her Mom said, “You’ve got lots of them at home, let’s go.” But Kristen refused to go and insisted on buying it. Her mom on the other hand was firm about not buying the doll. Kristen, feeling frustrated yelled, “I don’t want to go!” then turned around and started to run away from her Mom.
Was her emotion valid? Was her reaction acceptable?
Frustration is an emotional reaction when a goal is blocked and is commonly related to anger. Like adults, young children express emotions everyday and we witness a variety of these in a preschool setting. Joy, fear, anger, surprise, sadness and disgust are universal emotions, expressed similarly in all cultures and are already present at birth or in the early months (The Development of Children, 2009). A person’s characteristic pattern of emotional reactions is a basic element of personality (A Child’s World, 2008). Children of Kristen’s age may use hitting, biting, or pushing as a way to solve conflicts. They simply don’t understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate interactions yet. Although 3-year-olds begin to understand the emotions they are feeling, they have very little control over them. If they feel something, they will likely act on it. This may mean snatching away a toy from another child if they want to play with it. They get upset when told to wait for something they want to do right away. If they find something funny, they will laugh wildly. If they get excited, they will jump and yell uncontrollably. When children are extremely happy, they giggle almost endlessly and wrestle each other. If they feel sad or angry they will burst into tears.
As adults, we know how it feels to be frustrated or upset and we should know how to appropriately react or express such feelings. On the other hand, these feelings present special challenges to children’s self-regulation abilities. Between 2 to 6 years of age, children develop a number of strategies to help them keep their emotions under control (Grolnik, McMenamy Kurowski, 1999, Saarni, 2007, Gross & Thompson, 2007). Emotional self-regulation helps children guide their behavior (Laible & Thompson, 1998) and contributes to their ability to get along with others (Denham,et al, 2005).
Emotional understanding becomes more complex with age. Preschoolers can talk about their feelings and often discern the feelings of others (Saarni, Mumme, & Campos, 1998). By about age 3, having acquired self-awareness plus a good deal of knowledge about their society’s accepted standards, rules and goals, children become better able to evaluate their own thoughts, plans and desires, and behaviour, against what is considered socially appropriate. This is when they develop self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment, empathy and envy, and the self-evaluative emotions of pride, guilt and shame.
What Can Adults Do to Help Preschoolers in Understanding, Regulating and Controlling their Emotions?
Parents, teachers, and other adults can help children understand and control their emotions (Havighurst, Harley, & Prior, 2004; Thompson, 2006; Thompson & Lagattuta, 2005). They can talk with children to help them cope with distress, sadness, anger, or guilt (highered.Mcgraw-hill.com). Shame, guilt and pride depend on internalization of parental standards of behaviour (A Child’s World, 2008).
Modelling appropriate behaviour is still the most effective way of showing kids how to respond appropriately. As noted by Berk and Shanker (2006), by watching adults handle their own feelings, preschoolers pick up strategies for regulating emotions. Warm, patient parents, who use verbal guidance to help children understand and control their feelings, including suggesting and explaining strategies, strengthen the child’s capacity to handle stress (Gottman, Katz & Hooven, 1997). In contrast, when parents rarely express positive emotion, dismiss their child’s feelings as unimportant, and have difficulty controlling their own anger and hostility, children have continuing problems managing their emotions, that may seriously interfere with psychological adjustment (Calkins & Johnson, 1998; Eisenberg, et. Al, 2001; Gillion et al, 2002; Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2004).
Accordingly, to be competent members of society, children must learn how to control their emotions in addition to controlling their thoughts and actions (The Development of Children, 2009). In fact according to Dennis (2006), the ability to understand and regulate, or control one’s feelings is one of the key advances of early childhood. The emerging ability to control emotions help the preschool-age child deal with the disappointments, frustrations, and injured feelings that are so common at this stage.
Clearly this is a complex topic that requires parents, caregivers and those who interact with a child on a regular basis to work together. Modelling behaviours, teaching strategies to help cope, as well as working on language with children to help them express their emotions are key to supporting the child and family and are of utmost importance at BELA