We are facing unprecedented circumstances that are causing regressions, big emotions and stress for our children and families. Yet, supporting a child’s emotional development at home is not only about addressing challenging situations and big feelings. When we talk about supporting socio-emotional development, we are talking about laying the entire foundation for your child’s awareness, understanding and regulation of their emotions for years to come.
So, what can you do at home to support this, especially during these unprecedented times? The good news is that you were already an integral part of your child’s socio-emotional development before the world pandemic. Until we can expand our children’s worlds again, here are four important things for you to remember at home – now and beyond!
1. Perspective: Your child’s emotional brain is “under construction”
Children at every stage demonstrate so much wisdom and hard work that we tend to forget how young they are and how immature their socio-emotional brain is. Emotions are incredibly complex to feel and understand; It will take a lot of guidance on your part to support the trial and error your child needs to understand their emotions, and then develop socio-emotional skills.
When met with big emotions or challenges, we as parents look for ways to “fix” the situation or wonder what is “wrong.” The fact is, your child is growing. Setbacks are part of that growth – including emotional ones! Regressions are common during a time of transition and change. When met with challenges about emotions, big or small, it helps to address your child with the same level of kindness and respect anyone deserves when learning something new.
- Welcome feelings fully, including anger and sadness. Remain neutral, acknowledge and label the feeling with empathy, placing limits as needed. “It is not your turn yet, and I can see that is making your feel angry. You are right, it is very hard to wait. I love you, and I can’t let you hurt my body. I am right next to you.”
- Wait it out. Do not distract, do not ignore, do not interrupt. Just like concentration during work, your child’s brain is working hard at processing the emotion. They will simply not be ready to understand the impact of the emotion until they are done feeling it. Offer a hug, offer a hand on their back, remain present.
- Reconnect. It is not until your child is calm that you can then help them understand what happened, and, if appropriate, make amends. The portion of the brain that processes this information will not be working fully until the full emotion has passed.
2. Acknowledge emotions – all of them!
Emotion awareness, the process of identifying emotions and how they feel within us, is an integral part of emotional intelligence. Helping children understand what emotions are is an important building block towards their ability to regulate these emotions later on.
When doing this, consider all emotions. We often help our children identify difficult emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, as these are the ones most challenging for us as adults to welcome. However, don't overlook the importance of helping children understand what brings them joy and what makes them feel calm and loved. These emotions are just as important towards learning to overcome sadness, anger and frustration.
To help acknowledge, label emotions throughout the day – in yourself and in your child. “I’m feeling very happy we get to talk to grandma today!” “We can’t go to the pool, and that is making you feel very sad, I understand.”
- Be your child’s "emotions reporter," factual and neutral. “I see you are having a hard time putting your shoe on. That is making you feel angry. I hear you yelling.”
- Have fun with it! Use tools like books, magazines, emotions cards, charades, or making faces in the mirror with your child to reinforce emotion recognition and language.
- Get everyone involved. For mixed ages, engaging siblings in these conversations and activities together is important and helpful, as it provides modeling and emotional language to younger ones – and helps older children reinforce emotion understanding.
3. Cultivate – and care for – your role as a Prepared Adult
Our child’s Montessori guide recently said to me, “The adult is the most important material.” These words spoke so powerfully to me as a clinician and as a parent concerned about socio-emotional development during this time. Dr. Maria Montessori spoke of the adult as an inspiration for how a child directs their movements, and countless studies today show a direct relationship between a parent’s own self-regulation and the child’s socio-emotional skills. To whatever extent possible, remember these things as the day goes on:
- Notice and address your emotions before your child’s. Take a deep breath, be kind to yourself, and focus on being a source of comfort and safety.
- Acknowledge that your own emotions, stress and mood will impact your child. There may not be a way to change this, but be kind to yourself and to your child about it. Remember that it is often our stress and worry that impacts our children the most.
- Use the emotions you do feel as a chance to model for your child how to recognize and regulate emotions throughout the day.
- Respect your own boundaries for self-care. Guiding and navigating a child’s emotions can be challenging and requires self-compassion. Whether it's as big as a workout or as little as a shower or texting a friend, make it a ritual to do things to care for yourself so that in turn, you can take care of your child.
4. Prioritize connection
Whether it is taking a drive together with music, setting up a backyard picnic, or gathering around the table for a family meal—create a space for daily connection to promote positive emotions shared by the entire family. These are the moments that will fill everyone’s cup and promote self-esteem and confidence in our continued ability to love and care for one another above anything else. Connection through positive experiences, as little of a gesture as it may seem, is what your child will remember the most.
Blanca is a Licensed Professional Counselor with experience supporting the socio-emotional needs of children and families in various settings through evidence-based approaches. She also has over eight years of experience managing and disseminating the clinical research that helps develop these interventions. Her mission is to empower parents with science-based knowledge about child behavior and development in a way that can be applied at home.
She is originally from Mexico City, where she attended Montessori school as a child. She implements the Montessori philosophy at home with her bilingual toddler, who also attends a Montessori school as part of the Guidepost family. Follow her @whole.child.home on Instagram for more evidence-based ideas to support the development of the whole child at home, with the Montessori approach in mind.