Babies are not born knowing how to control their emotions, nor are adults necessarily well-versed in how to regulate their emotions, even after decades experiencing them. While modern society is making way and space for people to feel and name emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, embarrassment, stress and more, some of us hadn’t learned how to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and express these emotions in a healthy way.
At Little Scholars, emotional regulation skills are as important as every other lesson children learn during their time with us. We’re hoping to break generations of cycles of mental health stigmas by teaching children to name and work through their emotions, but we also recognise this must happen at home, on the sports field, and anywhere else they may need to have access to a range of tools to cope and work through tough situations and feelings.
As parents and caregivers, we understand that not all of us were raised with the emotional intelligence to guide a young person in developing theirs. There’s also the possibility that children in our care have experienced more traumatic or negative experiences than we’ve had to deal with, so it might be something we don’t know yet how to navigate. More on that later.
When emotional states are high, it’s helpful to recognise the behaviours we see, and the emotional states we may not see.
The behaviours can be aggression, screaming, crying, avoidance, refusal, hiding, running, threatening and loss of self-control, for example.
What we may not be seeing in our children are feelings of: nervousness, exhaustion, guilt, fear, disappointment, overwhelmed, anger, rejected, embarrassed, judged, unloved, depressed, anxious, worried, shame, disrespected, helplessness, offended, sad, and attacked, amongst other feelings.
When a child is displaying any of the above behaviours, what do you think the feeling behind it could be?
1. Stay tuned and recognise signs – Keep a close eye on behavioural cues that indicate your child is experiencing strong or challenging emotions. Be aware of these signals when they arise. Of course, the strength of the emotion is normal, it’s how they deal with it that’s important. This is a step in which you’re helping to create a safe haven for the child, one of trust and acceptance. For the adult, this is recognising and understanding that all emotions are natural and normal.
2. Turn challenges into teaching moments – See difficult situations as opportunities to connect with your child and help them learn valuable emotional regulation skills. Helping children to label their emotion encourages the regulatory process to engage and reconnect the thinking brain with their limbic system. In other words, name it to tame it!
3. Listen with empathy and validate their feelings – Before reacting with discipline, keep in mind the phrases ‘Connect before you correct‘ and ‘Stay calm and curious, not quick to anger.’ Ask open-ended questions to help your child identify and express their emotions, like “I noticed you seem to be feeling ___. Could it be that you’re feeling ___?’ or ‘I’m sorry that happened to you, you must be feeling very ___’
4. Establish boundaries – Clearly communicate expectations for behaviour, reinforcing positive actions such as using kind words and explaining consequences for inappropriate behaviour like hitting. Setting these boundaries helps maintain safety of the child and those around her/him. It’s important not to make the child feel shame, and ensure the child maintains self-dignity. ‘It’s ok to feel like that, but it’s not ok to behave like that’ or ‘we don’t deal with our emotions by ___’
5. Problem-solve together – Encourage your child to brainstorm possible solutions or strategies to improve future outcomes. Provide support tailored to their age and comprehension level, using visual aids or suggesting choices when helpful. So to restore and repair, you might explore the situation first: ‘how were you feeling when that happened?’ and ‘have you felt that way before?’ then show your child you’re in this together brainstorming ‘let’s think of what you could have done instead’ or ‘can you think of two more ways you can deal with your feelings?’ the work together to come up with solutions ‘let’s decide what you will do next time you feel like this’ or ‘do you think that ____ would be more helpful next time?’
can influence behaviour in children
Zoe Lowe is a teacher and mentor who guides educators and parents through early education, behavioural support and trauma-informed practices. She recently spoke to Little Scholars educators at our annual Learning & Development Day.
Her talk helped our educators understand trauma-informed practice, how to recognise the different types of trauma people can experience, and how to work with children who might have experiences of trauma. In Australia, upwards of 5 million adults are affected by childhood trauma.
The types of trauma include:
· Simple trauma, which stems from often a single incident that was life threatening or have the potential to cause serious injury.
· Complex trauma involves interpersonal threat, violence and violation, in contrast to simple trauma, complex trauma involves multiple incidents and is therefore longer in duration.
· Developmental trauma is used to describe the impact of early, repeated trauma and loss which happens within a child’s important relationships, generally early in life.
Children who have experienced any of these traumas can be affected in many ways in their development, she says, because their mental capacity to learn may be eclipsed by having to cope with these negative circumstances.
“This is correlated with developmental trauma,” Zoe says. “Surviving the situation. So [a child’s] survival system becomes overdeveloped. Everything else is underdeveloped.”
“What also happens with trauma, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s responsible for your memory [learning and emotion] and the ability to differentiate between the past and the present. So, with persistent exposure to trauma, it can shrink in size, so it won’t pull on what it can to differentiate between the past and present, which is why our past experiences can have such a profound impact on us, even if we’re no longer in danger,” Zoe continues.
So why does this matter?
Because trauma can present itself in many ways in children. Perhaps they’re tired all the time, they startle easily, children who perceive educators or other trusted adults as angry and perceiving them as authoritarians with whom they can’t connect or feel safe, struggling to understand concepts easily, not coping well with transitions, friendship issues, over or under-eating, and, aggression.
However, she says, trauma can explain the behaviour, but it does not excuse the behaviour.
And these symptoms that can present in children may not necessarily be trauma, so Zoe warns not to be quick to diagnose children.
Whether the child has experienced an adverse life event or not, if there’s a behaviour exhibited that we don’t want to see, Zoe says this is where we question what’s behind the behaviour, and find out what a child might need to cease the behaviour.
“As educators, we are going to make a paradigm shift. We’re moving away from ‘what is wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you? What is this behaviour that I am seeing right now communicating to me? What need is needing to be met by me?’ says Zoe.
This shift also helps adults calm down and regulate their own reactions to the behaviour in question.
“We expect children to self-regulate, they can’t. They need co-regulation, we need to be with them, supporting them, holding space for them, and teaching them how to regulate.”
While children may not be born knowing how to regulate their emotions, at Little Scholars, we believe they deserve a safe space to learn and grow. We understand that emotional regulation skills are crucial for all aspects of life, and we’re committed to working alongside parents and caregivers to build a supportive community where every child feels empowered to express themselves healthily.
Our educators are extensively trained in recognising emotional cues and guiding children through challenging situations. We encourage you to stay tuned for further resources, and remember, you’re not alone, we’re here to support your child, your family and our greater community in creating a generation equipped with the emotional intelligence to navigate life’s ups and downs with confidence and compassion.
Elizabeth Stone, an award-winning essayist and journalist, once captured the essence of parenthood with a poignant quote, ‘Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.’ This statement resonates deeply with many parents, astutely capturing the feelings of boundless love and the inevitable vulnerability that comes with bringing a child into the world.
This overwhelming surge of emotion is particularly intense during those initial moments and first days of separation from your child, often experienced when that child is entrusted to the care of someone else for the first time. It’s a milestone filled with mixed emotions for parents – pride in their growing independence, yet a deep longing to keep them close forever.
While the focus in the first few weeks at early learning facilities is generally on the children and how they’re settling in, an often-forgotten topic is the separation anxiety parents also can feel when they drop their little ones in care for the first time.
In childcare, we offer families tips on how to help children settle in, from suggestions such as: ‘don’t sneak away’, ‘keep goodbyes short’, and ‘maintain calm and confidence’, but what if the child is just fine, but the parents are struggling from the separation?
It’s understandable. If you’re coming off maternity or paternity leave, or perhaps you’ve been the primary parent at home for the last few years, change can be profoundly hard.
What we’re talking about is parental separation anxiety, and it’s more common than you think.
“I experienced separation anxiety with both my children when I dropped them into care for the first time, but I was much more surprised with my feelings the second time around,” says Christina, a communications professional who has two children. “I had to go back to work much earlier the second time around, and I felt a lot of grief for not getting to continue to bond with my son the way I had been, knowing he was my last baby. I also experienced some fears around him attaching to his educators more than me.”
A 2016 study by Pacey UK (the professional association for childcare and early years) reported that out of 1,000 mothers, 70% of mums said they worried about the extent they would miss their children, 90% reported feeling anxious about returning to work after having a child, while nearly half of mums admitted being very anxious.
How can parental separation anxiety manifest itself? Some of the more obvious signs are tears. Anxious feelings. Moodiness. While others you may not notice until they start affecting your life and mental health.
Here are some common indicators of more serious separation anxiety to be aware of:
Ask yourself, what is your biggest fear or worry in separating from your child? The initial step in overcoming these feelings is to acknowledge and understand them. If you’re experiencing heightened anxiety about being apart from your child, it’s important to explore the origins of these feelings. Perhaps they stem from experiences in your life in childhood, or birth trauma, the loss of pregnancy or another child, perinatal or postnatal anxiety/depression and existing anxiety issues, or it may simply be triggered by the act of becoming a parent.
“How does a parent reconcile these feelings of separating from their child? I think what’s important about that one is that often it’s around guilt,” says Sarah Bergman, a clinical psychotherapist at Counselling on the Coast who has more than three decades of experience in emotionally-focused therapy.
“Guilt is really an emotion that comes up when we have like an idealised sense of a situation or who we are. So we feel guilty when we don’t feel we’ve reached what we want to be reaching or we haven’t done what we want to do. I would say to explore those feelings of guilt, what they are, what you feel like you’re not doing for your child or getting right for your child.”
Sarah says those guilty feelings in parents often link back to situations in their own childhood where they felt like their own parents let them down. But the concern is also passing down those guilty or anxious feelings to your child.
“Their own wounds start to muddy the waters of the child’s experience. So the child’s just going to school, but then they feel their parents anxiety and then they also think that something’s wrong then too, which can make them anxious. So if the parents have a good look at themselves around, ‘what was it that my parents got wrong for me? or what was it that wounded me? and how does that now play across on my child?’ So the parents will often work hard to do the things that they don’t want that their children to experience themselves.”
While Sarah says often the guilty feelings stem from what they missed in their own childhood, the opposite could be true.
“Maybe [parents feel they’re] not meeting the ideals of what your parent did for you or what things that you really loved about your parent and now you feel like you’re not getting that right.”
Wherever the feelings stem from, Sarah says, parents may be trying to heal themselves through their relationship with their child. But, she says, a child doesn’t have those wounds. They don’t experience their parents in that same way that perhaps you did. So she surmises parents could be overcompensating for their own childhood pain.
“Those kind of parents are very anxious at feeling like they have to attend to everything with their children because they don’t ever want their children to feel the way that they did,” Sarah summarises.
Consider jotting down your feelings or discussing them with a sympathetic friend or even a colleague who could relate with what you’re currently experiencing. Regardless of how trivial or illogical they might seem, allowing yourself to express and discuss these fears can aid in releasing them.
Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
Sarah also suggests parents educate themselves on secure attachment, a theory first proposed by the British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. For children, secure attachment to someone like a mum or dad allows them the secure base necessary to explore, learn and relate, and the well-being, motivation, and opportunity to do so. It’s important for safety, stress regulation, adaptability, and resilience and ultimately can help produce a happy, healthy well-adjusted child.
“If you are securely attached, you will feel less anxious because you will feel comfortable that you can trust, you have a positive view of other people and a positive view of self,” Sarah says. “So you think to yourself, ‘it’s okay. My child is in safe hands. They will let me know. I trust the daycare centre. And I trust myself that I’m doing the right thing by my child and it’s going to be okay and I need to go to work and this is just the way it is.’ Whereas someone who is more anxiously attached sometimes have a bit of a negative view of themself and possibly a bit of negative view of others so they don’t totally trust others, so it’s about trying to move into being more securely attached.”
She also says to have an honest conversation with educators or your campus manager.
“You know, that is actually good secure relating as well, that a parent can actually say, ‘I’m feeling a bit nervous’, or ‘I’m a bit worried about that,’ because they’re asking then, they’re not coping alone.”
Sarah recommends in that conversation, have a chat with educators or your campus manager about what might help to alleviate those anxious feelings, whether it’s a phone call or a text, a few extra pictures – whatever it is, having clear communication can help everyone.
“What helped me was an honest discussion with my son’s lead educator during a playdate. She asked me thoughtful questions about why I was having a hard time, asked how she could help alleviate those feelings for me, and was very mindful to update with lots of pictures, and even checked in on me at pick-up over the next few weeks. It was really helpful, and gave me feelings of trust in leaving my baby with her and her team,” Christina adds.
Those secure attachments we want children to have means we also want them to have bonds with others, such as loving educators.
A child who has had a secure attachment with her parent or another safe adult is more likely to be able to develop lasting successful relationships as an adult. In fact, a New York University study recently found positive, warm relationships between caregivers and children were associated with higher odds of attaining ideal heart health at multiple points across a 20-year span of adulthood, so developing these bonds is good for their health!
Part of early childhood training for educators is understand various child development theories such as attachment theory, so trust that your educators understand what secure attachments – both to parents and others children can trust – mean for children’s development and they work hard to ensure these bonds with your child.
Research has found our adult relationships are shaped by our early patterns of attachment and the ways we learn to deal with closeness and separation.
“Children are very attached to their parents and they love their parents very much. And that is who they want to be with. And if they create an attachment with someone else, that’s lovely. However, ultimately it’s important to keep in mind they will want to be with their parents,” Sarah says.
Sarah also says some of these feelings may be pressure we put on ourselves as parents.
“We don’t actually have to be perfect parents and I think a lot of people are really trying to be perfect parents and wrapping their children in bubble wrap. You just have to be good enough. I think from memory it’s only like around 60 or 70 per cent strike rate of meeting the child’s needs.”
Sarah is referring to the Winnicott theory.
“The good-enough mother is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.” – D. W. Winnicott, paediatrician and parent-infant therapist.
“We all have to learn that sometimes our needs aren’t going to be met. And that’s actually where we build resilience and we build understanding around that other people have things they need to do as well,” Sarah says. “You don’t have to drop everything to be there for your kids. It’s okay to have ruptures with your children. It’s actually okay because that is a realistic expectation on relationships. We all have ruptures and then we get to learn how to repair those ruptures. But of course, if the child’s fallen over or they’ve hurt themselves or they’re scared at night, you want your strike rate on those things needs to be closer to 100 per cent.
“But otherwise, we don’t have to be so hard on ourselves, we can get it wrong sometimes. We just go back and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry I got that wrong.’ And then the child also learns that they’re going to get things wrong sometimes, too. They can come to their parent and say, ‘Hey, Mum, sorry about that.’”
If we can offer some advice, it’s what we also suggest to parents when children are having a hard time with separating. Find an activity you can do together outside of care hours that you can look forward to, so you can cherish your time together. Maybe after pick-up, you take your child for a walk or to the park, maybe it’s grabbing a sneaky ice cream after dinner, maybe it’s a game night or story time when you get home. Find ways to really connect with your child in the time you’re together may make the time you’re apart easier to deal with.
Sarah says mindful activities can help in easing anxious feelings. But, she says, if these feelings are taking over, it might be worth talking to a professional as soon as possible. You can talk to your GP about a referral to see a psychologist, or you can book in to a specialist practice such as Sarah’s Counselling on the Coast to have a chat with a psychotherapist.
Please remember, if Little Scholars can help in any way, we will, from offering a listening ear, to phone calls to whatever would help your family, we will. We’re not just here for children, we’re here for the whole family.
Let us hold your hand and help looking for a child care centre. Leave your details with us and we’ll be in contact to arrange a time for a ‘Campus Tour’ and we will answer any questions you might have!