It starts with crying to have their needs met and, as their language and motor skills improve, develops into vocalising their feelings.
But the environment in which a child grows up can strongly affect their ability to express how they feel and understand the emotions of others.
Kids need a safe space to develop their emotional intelligence and the support of the adults around them to encourage their growth.
Why is it essential to understand emotional development in children?
During childhood, our brains are like sponges. It’s the fastest period of learning ability we have in our lifetime, and it sets the tone for later in life. Good emotional health for children is important in relation to many areas of their life, including learning. So, if we want our children to grow into emotionally healthy adults, we have to invest in their emotional development from a young age.
It may feel like kids have it easy, but they actually go through a lot of changes that can be difficult to deal with. For example, some children find that school is challenging to navigate.
In the past, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on educational intelligence; that is, how much knowledge can you retain from your school studies? However, we are now well aware that emotional intelligence is just as important as any other and that we need to treat it as such.
Five steps to understanding and supporting emotional development in children
1. Pay attention to your child’s feelingsBefore you can implement any strategies to support your child’s emotional development, you need to try and understand where they are emotionally. Take the time to observe how your child exhibits their feelings and the coping strategies they have in place when they are dealing with negative emotions.
This way, you can evaluate the skills your child has and the skills that need to be focused on and developed.
2. Give your child the tools to express themselves freelyIt is estimated that there are over 34,000 different emotions that human beings can experience. So it makes sense that your child may have difficulty finding a way to express how they feel.
Have regular, open conversations with your child about their feelings, and encourage them to express themselves in whichever way feels best to them.
However, words aren’t the only way for a child to express their thoughts and feelings. Doodles have been found to provide a creative outlet for kids to express the emotions that they can’t vocalise. So make sure you have a doodle notebook handy for them to access whenever they need to and encourage them to utilise it as an outlet whenever they see fit.
Whether you have a conversation or opt for doodling, it’s crucial to make sure you don’t influence their responses. Give them a safe space for free expression and don’t impose any narrowing restrictions on their creativity (except maybe to keep the drawings in the notebook and off the wall!).
3. Teach constructive coping mechanismsChildren can develop coping strategies to deal with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and sadness even at a young age. It is a form of self-soothing. And if your child has developed destructive coping mechanisms, now is the time to help them change their habits.
For example, if you notice that your child tends to avoid any situation that makes them feel anxious, empower them to face their fears and remind them that it’s ok to feel scared, but avoiding our fears only makes it worse.
Likewise, if you find your child developing anger problems by channelling their anger into fits of rage, help your child get to the root of the problem and encourage them to find new ways to let go of the built-up frustration. An excellent example of this would be to sign them up for a sports club and encourage them to use the energy in a positive manner.
4. Be a good role model
The key to healthy emotional development starts with you. Young children idolise the adults around them and tend to imitate their behaviour. This is especially true of their parents.
So if you want your child to develop healthy emotional responses, you must model them in the household.
This means having open conversations about feelings and providing a safe space for vulnerability without judgement.
This also means showing your child how to cope well with their emotions. For example, when you get angry, instead of going off on a swearing rant, model a more productive way of calming yourself down, like doing exercise or meditating.
Eventually, your child will learn to employ similar strategies that will help provide the basis for their emotional development.
5. Encourage them to try new thingsEventually, we as humans get comfortable with the things we are familiar with. And this allows us to regulate our emotions in these situations. But what happens when we step into new environments that make us nervous or unsure?
Getting comfortable with new situations is an essential step in emotional development. Your child needs to learn how they can navigate their emotions when they feel uncomfortable or out of control.
And you will be able to support them as they process this information and try to navigate these new waters.
While it can be tempting to shield our children from discomfort, it will only stunt their emotional growth in the long run, so it is better to expose them to new situations from a younger age.
Final thoughtsAs a key adult in your child’s life, you have a critical role in their emotional development. As such, providing a safe space where your child can discover their feelings in a healthy way will provide them with key skills that will help them navigate life as they get older.
But don’t worry about getting it perfect. We’re human, and we all make mistakes. So be kind to yourself through the process. And hey, if you do mess up, it’s the perfect opportunity to teach your child that it's ok to make mistakes and model how to deal with them.