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How to Help Kids Deal with Their Emotions

happy mom and baby

Denis Horan

If there is one skill a newborn has no trouble mastering, it's the heart-wrenching sob. Your baby is communicating a need -- "I'm hungry" -- but also an emotion: "I'm upset!" Newborns have two basic emotional states: happy and unhappy. "A content baby is sleeping or just observing what is going on around her," says Sara Van Bortel, a social worker at the Mt. Hope Family Center, in Rochester, New York. Everyone knows the features of an unhappy baby: tears, screams, and writhing. "It's a full-body experience," Van Bortel says. All those theatrics are your baby's way of saying "Help me feel calm again." When you fulfill that need, you're teaching an important first lesson in emotions. When she's unhappy, a person who loves her will take care of her.

After crying, smiling is the second expression of emotion. Real smiles start at around 6 weeks of age. Just like adults, who can flash a polite smile to a person they pass on the street and an overjoyed grin to a beloved friend, babies have different kinds of smiles. The true "I'm so happy" smile requires the use of a muscle near the eye, a muscle that very few people can manipulate voluntarily. It's reflexive and controlled by the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion, according to Lise Elliot, PhD, author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years (Bantam Books).

Starting at around 3 months of age, your baby's motor skills will improve, and he'll figure out all the fun things he can do with his body: roll over or kick at a dangling toy. The previous "good or bad" world of emotional experience is deepening and widening. These new emotions include curiosity ("Wow, I could stare at my hands all day!") and surprise ("Where's Mom? There she is! Peekaboo is fun!"). In addition to increased physical skills, cognitive skills have advanced to the point where he can set goals. This growing emotional intelligence allows him to feel the joy of success or the frustration of failure. Consider an 8-month-old whose hands are reaching toward a desired toy. "If you stop a baby from trying to get something, that is going to make him mad," says Susanne A. Denham, PhD, author of Emotional Development in Young Children (Guilford Press). "They have a goal, and they do not like that you're keeping them from it."

Fear is another emotion that appears before a child's first birthday, usually in conjunction with stranger anxiety. This new emotion is another sign of higher thinking. "It's hard to be afraid of a stranger if you can't figure out whom you recognize," Denham says.

happy boy

Denis Horan

As your baby reaches her first birthday, she'll feel excited about new adventures -- walking up and down stairs or riding the slide at the park -- but will also be apprehensive about doing it all by herself. On the one hand, she doesn't want any help, but she melts down easily when things don't go her way. Frustration is not a new emotion for a toddler, but there's an added layer to the babyhood version. An 18-month-old, told it's time to leave the playground, isn't just mad because she's not getting what she wants. She's also mad because she understands that Mom could give in but is choosing not to, which enrages her even more. Not surprisingly, this lack of emotional control, which increases between ages 2 and 3, is really a cry for help. Your child simply doesn't know how to handle the intensity of her emotions.

Consider what happens when you slam your finger in a drawer. Pain, anger, and maybe even fear will flood your brain. But you quickly sort through these emotions: your finger hurts, but you know the pain will subside, so there's no need to panic; you shake off your anger; you rule out fear because you can identify the severity (not very high) of the injury.

Toddlers, however, don't yet have this power to rationalize. They don't know which emotions to ignore and which ones are justified. This is why when a child falls, her first reaction is often to turn and look at Mom's face. Do you look afraid? Sad? Angry? This emotional referencing helps your child learn the appropriate responses to difficult situations. "Kids need to know, 'I am feeling something but I am going to be okay,'" Van Bortel says.

Toddlers are also becoming more self-aware. "Put an 18-month-old in front of a mirror with a little rouge on his nose, and he recognizes himself and will try to remove the rouge. Before 18 months, they don't," says Matt Hertenstein, a psychologist and lead researcher at the Infant Discovery and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. Burgeoning self-consciousness brings with it several new emotions, such as embarrassment. When your potty-training 2-year-old has an accident at daycare and is laughed at, he understands that others are making fun of him. But this new emotional understanding also has a positive side: Your toddler now can experience the pride that comes from a job well done. Praise him for a colorful picture he drew or a tower he carefully built, and he'll smile brightly and puff up his chest.

But just because your child is experiencing these new feelings doesn't mean he can name them. At age 3, a child still describes his emotions in three basic ways: happy, mad, or sad. Ask a beaming child how he feels about his painting, Van Bortel says, and he'll likely have a one-word answer: "Good." When a parent says, "You must feel very proud!" you are then helping him develop the words necessary to articulate all the different kinds of "good" emotions he feels.

Improving verbal ability also results in another skill: negotiation. A 3-year-old, knowing that Mom and Dad are going out to dinner, might try to talk his parents into staying home. Though he may not be conscious of his reasoning, he knows one thing: I am going to feel upset when Mommy and Daddy go out. This is because a child of that age now has a new capacity: "He can anticipate the emotions he will have in a certain situation because his ability to remember has developed," says Julie Braungart-Rieker, PhD, who researches infant emotional development at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. As your child ages, and you go from kissing boo-boos to helping heal broken hearts, his problems will become more complex. But one thing will remain the same. What he wants to hear more than anything is, "Everything is going to be okay."

angry baby

Denis Horan

The doorbell rings, and in walks a person whose face your 9-month-old baby does not recognize. She looks at the stranger and then at you. Are you afraid of this person or happy to see him? Should she give in to her urge to cry, or is everything going to be okay?

Your baby is noticing that there are people and situations that he never noticed before that warrant an emotional reaction. But exactly what reaction still leaves your baby stumped. So her first instinct is to gauge the response of the person she trusts most.

And it's not just the expression on your face that babies can interpret. They can sense your emotional state through the temperature of your skin, the pattern of your breath, and your pulse. "If you had a stressful day, your baby might pick up on the tension in your muscles or the way you are holding her versus being relaxed and easy going with her," Matt Hertenstein, PhD, a researcher at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana.

So when you see your baby shoot you a "what's happening here?" look, give her the answer she's looking for, be it an energetic "no!" or a big hug after a bump on the head.

How children respond emotionally to a situation depends largely on their temperament, an inborn way in which they experience the world. "Some kids are more easily frustrated than others, and some children are less outgoing or more easily intimidated," says Braungart-Rieker. Although temperament is inborn, it is adaptable. So if you have a child who is easily frustrated, that frustration need not always turn into anger. You can stop this cycle by helping him learn to identify that feeling of frustration and find ways to diffuse it. And realize, too, that children have different emotional needs. One child may want constant cuddling, while another prefers crawling around the room. This doesn't mean that the more active child doesn't need your love as much as the cuddly one. It just means he's busy. For a child like that, a tickle attack or a wrestling match is just the kind of "I love you" he needs.

Birth to 3 Months

  • Smiles and experiences joy.
  • Stops crying when picked up and talked to.
  • Shows pleasure by giggling, squealing, kicking his legs, and waving his arms.

4-7 months

  • Develops variety of facial expressions to communicate feelings.
  • Shows affection by patting parent and gets upset when Mom or Dad leaves.
  • Temperament emerges, becoming a factor in baby's everyday dealings.

7-12 months

  • Lots of smiles, more social, aware of the comings and goings of others, less fussy.
  • Becomes more attached to primary caregiver and develops stranger anxiety.
  • Uses smiles, tears, cooing, and squealing to communicate emotions.

1-2 years

  • Fierce independence followed commonly by clinginess.
  • Seeks comfort from Mom when lonely, sick, or scared.
  • Frustration over inability to properly communicate her needs, leading to temper tantrums.

2-3 years

  • Moody: smiles to tantrums in a heartbeat.
  • Violent behavior: hitting and biting, when disciplined.
  • Little emotional control.

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.

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