Anyone who spends much time around toddlers and young preschoolers, knows that they can frequently manifest behavior that is downright beastly. So, in today’s pedcast, we are going to talk about understanding and managing their beastly behavior by teaching them to understand and control their emotions. Don’t you dare miss this important episode of Portable Practical Pediatrics.
Science Drive: The Biology of a Young Children’s Emotions
Deep down, every child is focused on their own needs. They see the world through the prism of me, me, and more me. Add on to that narcissism, the fact that young children don’t understand the rules of social interaction and you can see why many call the early years the terrible twos. Most young child at the age of two and three don’t understand how their behavior effects others and they can’t tolerate not being the center of everything! That’s where you, the parent of this little self-centered child comes in. Its your job to gradually teach them how to understand and deal with their own emotions as well as teaching them to be respectful of others, to share, not to hit or bite, not to grab or push etc, etc. Your parents did this for you and now it is your turn to teach all this to your children.
We all know that all this teaching is a slow process, but once you have layered all those rules on top of their inborn self-centeredness, your child begins to become a social creature and develops what psychologists call “Emotional intelligence”. Once that happens they become a pleasure to be with. But until that day arrives, life can be very tough for your child as well as you.
But what part of a young child’s brain does all this emotional intelligence rely on? The cortex of your child’s brain, especially the front called the pre-frontal cortex. Many neuroscientists call this the “Thinking part of our brains”. The emotional reactive part of their brains, are still very much active, but are slowly being overruled and regulated by the more mature thinking part of their brains.
To prove to yourself what I am talking about, just think about taking a toy away from a 18 month old, then a 3 year old, then a 5 year old and you will understand how different their reactions actually can be. Why, because they are learning emotional regulation and intelligence as they grow and develop. And who is teaching all of this to them… you of course. Like everything else. By direct instruction and by example. These are skills that every child must master and that you must teach.
How Do You Teach Your Children Emotional Intelligence?
OK, now that we understand a little of the biology of a young child’s mind, let’s get back to the problem that every parent has, teaching emotional intelligence to their young children. Let’s start that conversation with the example of what do you do when your child flies into a rage and becomes irrational and impossible to handle? In other words, they are frustrated by something and have a full blown tantrum. Your approaches are relatively limited if you stop and analyze it;
- Separate the child until they calm down and then talk. This is called “Time Out” in the parenting world.
2. Put up a very stern and quick emotional response to the child to shut the behavior down, what I call the “Swat Team Approach”. Yelling, hitting, or some other type of forceful negative response.
3. Humiliate or belittle the behavior, what I call the “Drill Sergeant Approach”, with hopes to discourage it continuing or repeating itself in the future.
4. Give into the child’s demand to avoid the confrontation. I call this the “Surrender Approach”; effective in the short term but with consequences for the future behavior that may not be very desirable.
5. Or, you could use the “Inuit Indian Method”. They have an interesting approach to this that I read about in an NPR article
While it is true, that the Inuit culture of today has their share of emotional problems, the approach that many of the Inuit parents use with their children seemed to make sense to me and also seemed to be a way of teaching young children how to control their emotions in a respectful way. I see this as a variant of the “Time Out” method but instead of “punishing” the child with isolation, simply waiting for the emotional outburst to pass and then using that situation to teach the child to understand their own emotions. I encourage you to take a few minutes and read the article that I have linked in my Smo notes at www.docsmo.com. Here are the essential points of the Inuit approach:
- A young child cannot stop or control their own emotional responses and asking them to do so is useless. These are innate biological reactions of which they have no control and demanding that they stop is probably useless.
- A young child who is in the midst of a rage cannot gain any insight into how this affects others until their rage passes and it is that insight that you want them to understand.
- After the anger/tantrum passes, then a parent has the ability to be heard by the child and that is when teaching can occur. Until then, they only hear their own rage.
- Storytelling and roll play are very effective ways of teaching children how their behavior affects others around them. Here is the example of how an Inuit parent would handle an aggressive young child. I’m quoting from the article now:“When a child misbehaves — hits someone or has a tantrum — there’s no punishment. Instead, the parent waits for a calm moment and then acts out what happened during the misbehavior.Typically the performance starts with the parent tempting the child to misbehave. For example, “Why don’t you hit me?”Then the child has to think: “What should I do?” If the child takes the bait and hits, the parent doesn’t scold or yell but instead acts out the consequences. “Ow, that hurts!” Mom or Dad might exclaim, to show that hitting hurts.Briggs (the researcher who studied the Inuit discipline method) documented that the parent continues to emphasize the consequences by asking follow-up questions such as “Don’t you like me?” or “Are you a baby?”The goal is to give the child a chance to practice the proper behavior at a time when the child is open to learning and not emotionally charged. Throughout the drama, the parent keeps a playful tone and a wink in the eye.
Actually, I think most parents use some of this teaching method without giving it a name. We call it the “Golden Rule” where I come from. Recently, the time out method of dealing with an out of control child has gotten a lot of negative press. (Too damaging to the child’s self esteem). I’m not sure of that myself, especially if you treat the child with respect during the process. Certainly we have ample evidence that the Swat team approach, especially the corporal punishment part of it is harmful to children, ultimately making them more aggressive, have more mental health problems, and more cognitive difficulties than their peers. Similar negative effects are seen on children raised in by the “Drill Sergeant Approach“.
So what should we make of all this? What are the take away messages that experienced parents and Inuit Indian families have learned about teaching their young children to regulate their emotions in a healthy way?
- First, understand that very young children really can’t control their rage and anger when they are frustrated. Do not humiliate them or try to smother these emotions. Simply help them calm down without belittling them. If they are in public, take them somewhere they can calm down in private.
- Anytime your child has a tantrum, after the emotion passes, try and understand what they were feeling and help them understand that feeling. Show them that you understand. Your acceptance and understanding will bring you closer to your child.
- Additionally, after the emotion has subsided and they are hearing what you are saying, try and teach them alternative ways of dealing their frustration (i.e., talking, complaining, or removing themselves from the situation). Role play and storytelling, like the Inuit like to do, may be very helpful.
- Whatever method you use, try and always be respectful of your child’s feelings. That doesn’t mean be a pushover and let your child get whatever they want or never be reprimanded. It just means every conflict needs to end with understanding and forgiveness. Only from that place can children truly grow in their emotional intelligence.
Well, that’s it for this pedcast. If you value the information you hear on Portable Practical pediatrics, subscribe to my newsletter at www.docsmo.com and I will send you an email when I post new content. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, hoping that after listening to this podcast you will be a little more sage, the next time your child flies into a rage. Until next time.
Many thanks to Dr. Monica Miller and Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze for their help in the production of this pedcast.