Friday, July 13, 2012

Understanding Your Child's Emotions

As adults, we are pretty used to the way our emotions work and we're used feeling lots of different, often conflicting, things all at once!  But just like you wouldn't expect your two-month old to walk across the room, or your two year-old to perform an intricate tap-dance, you can't expect your little one to have or express the same complex emotions that you do.

When we watch our children grow and develop physically, it is easy to see the many huge changes they are making as they happen!  Your child will get bigger, more coordinated, and she will move through milestones--from rolling over, to sitting up, to standing up, to walking.  The same process of development is happening with your child emotionally, it just might be a little easier to overlook.  It's our job as parents to help our children understand their emotions better, become more sensitive to the emotions of others, and to help them find ways to manage the many emotions they feel--but that can be hard to do unless we understand what's is going on with their emotional development!

Children develop their emotions starting with what we call "primary emotions": joy, anger, sadness, and fear.  All other emotions stem from these.  The set of related emotions that eventually develop from those primary emotions are called "emotional clusters" (see the cute little chart of clusters below!). 


One of the first emotions a baby will develop is joy, you can see this one at around six weeks when your baby first starts purposely smiling at you.  Joy will eventually develop into emotions such as surprise, affection, pride, and empathy, (other emotions in the cluster) but it takes months and even years for these emotions to emerge.  Anger will develop next around 3 to 4 months, and sadness and fear around 5-7 months.  As your child gets older and more advanced in other areas of development, her emotions will get more and more complex.

Primary emotions can be very intense in the early years (which you may have noticed if you have any experience with toddler tantrums!), and can change very quickly.  As your child gets older, her emotions will change much less rapidly and she will express herself in different and more complex ways.  Instead of just screaming, she may pout, whine, or express her feelings in words.

Another thing that is important to note about emotional development is that young children only experience one emotion at a time.  When they are happy, they are completely happy.  When they are angry, they are angry through and through!  Although these emotions can change very quickly, your child is only experiencing one emotion at once.  This is how children experience emotions until they are around 5 years old.  From about 5 to 7 years old your child will start to feel more than one emotion towards the same thing, but these otions will be from the same cluster (such as being happy and excited about a birthday party).  Then, from ages 8-10 your child will begin to be able to feel emotions from different clusters, but they will be in succession.  For example, your child can feel anxious (fear) and excited (joy) about the same event, but these feelings will seem to come one after another, rather than feeling both at the same time.  It's not until about 10-12 years that children begin to feel "mixed emotions".  At this point your child will begin to realize that she can feel two very different, very conflicting emotions about the same thing.  This can be distressing for children when their feelings are suddenly "fighting" with each other and they may need support as they figure things out.

Your child is developing in so many areas all at once (it's so tiring being a kid!!) and she needs support in every area to become the happy healthy child you want her to be.  With a little bit of information you can be prepared to help her grow and understand what she's feeling!

Info taken from: Guiding Children's Social Development & Learning.  Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, Gregory

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