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Little children, big emotions

Child development

It’s no secret that children can have big emotions and sometimes it can be a challenge for parents to help them deal with these emotions.

But armed with a bit of extra knowledge, parents can not only help their children navigate their big emotions, but also contribute to a calmer and happier family.

Goodstart state manager Dr Lesley Jones is an expert in early childhood development and will be presenting at the Gold Coast Kids and Parenting Fair in November.

Focussed on helping parents support young children through big emotions and behaviours, Dr Jones’ presentation will help parents understand what is going on for their children and give them skills so they can deal with those parenting moments. 

“Small children can, and do, have big emotions. Learning how to cope with big emotions and new social situations takes time and lots of practice for little ones to become masterful,” said Dr Jones.  

“Putting children’s behaviours into perspective; understanding what is going on and learning some simple, effective strategies goes a long way to taking the frustration out of these challenging moments,” she said. 

“Thinking about children learning social behaviours in the same way we think about other types of learning like literacy or numeracy, can help us put children’s behaviour and the parent’s role in supporting the learning into better perspective.”

She said when parents became more proactive, guiding and teaching social skills to young children, it empowered parents and made it easier for children to negotiate the complex world around them.

Some of the basic things Dr Jones suggested parents remember about their children, include: 

Their developmental maturity: Young children are inexperienced and don’t have a sophisticated understanding of how the world works. 

“It shouldn’t surprise us then when children become overwhelmed with what we are asking of them and of the way they are feeling, when confronted with complex social situations,” she said.

“Asking a three-year-old to share a much-loved toy with someone else is a really hard thing for some children to do.  Yet many adults don’t take the time to recognise just how difficult this is for young children.” 

Their basic needs: Children cope with things less well when they are tired, hungry or unwell. They also have a big need for “time in relationships” and connecting with important people in their lives like their parents. 

Sometimes, children’s acting out behaviours are the unhelpful ways that children will use to meet this need.

“It is helpful to ensure parents are taking the time just to 'be' with their children rather than wait until they 'have to be' present to deal with a challenging behaviour,” Dr Jones said. 

Your realistic expectations: Often when children are learning the kind of skills we hope they will have when they are older, like being independent, resilient or responsible, their progress in learning these skills might not look like what we expect them to. 

For example:
  • When your three-year-old is frustratingly demanding “Me do it, me do it!” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is the building block of independence.
  • Your four-year-old’s attempt to clean their room, tidy up their own belongings or feed the cat, may not look exactly the way you intend them to look, but their initially clumsy attempts at managing such tasks, will assist in developing the skills for managing much more complex forms of responsibility, independence and resilience into their future.
Parents who focus on actively teaching their children the skills to manage social situations well often see great outcomes for their children and families. 

Communicating expectations to children: It is very common for children to have a different understanding of expectations than parents assume which is why it is important to be clear, precise and specific about what you mean.

Swap instructions like “Tidy your room” to: “Can you please go into your room and put your toys in the toy box, your dirty clothes in the wash basket in the laundry and your shoes in your wardrobe; thankyou.”

This gives the child a much clearer picture of what you actually want them to do and a much better chance of them being successful.

Practice makes perfect: Social skills take time and practise for children to learn, but before you even get started it’s important to check that your children understand your house rules or the behaviour you’re trying to establish.
 If you make a game out of practising, your child is more likely to learn these important social skills. For example you could pretend to get ready for kindy, or act out what you would do when you go to the shops or when you play with baby. 

This allows your child to try out the new, better, behaviours at a time when there is no pressure and everyone is calm. This gives the child a much better chance of using the right behaviour when it really counts.

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