Everyone is born with emotions, but not all those emotions are pre-wired into our brains. When your kid is born, he already has some built-in emotional reactions such as crying, frustration, hunger, and pain. But he learns about other emotions as he grows older.
There are varying views about the emotions that are in-built versus those learned from emotional, social, and cultural contexts. What is widely accepted, however, is that there are eight primary built-in emotions: anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame. These primary emotions come in different shades. For instance, resentment and violence are often associated with anger, and anxiety often stems from fear.
Secondary emotions are always linked to these eight primary emotions and reflect our emotional reaction to specific feelings. These emotions are learned from our experiences. For example, if your kid is punished because of a meltdown, she might feel anxious the next time she gets angry. If she is ridiculed for expressing fear, she might feel shame the next time she gets scared.
In other words, how you react to your kids’ emotions ultimately has an impact on the development of her emotional intelligence.
When we invalidate our kids’ emotions, we prevent them from learning to manage their big emotions. When we teach them to identify their emotions and provide a safe environment in which they can express those emotions, we make it easier for them to handle difficult emotions in a socially appropriate way.
The emotions children experience vary depending on age:
Infants are essentially guided by emotions pre-wired into their brains. For instance, your toddler will cry in an attempt to avoid unpleasant stimuli or to move toward pleasant stimuli (food, touch, hugs). Evidence suggests that, in the first six months, infants are capable of experiencing and responding to distress by adopting self-soothing behavior, such as sucking. Other studies have found that toddlers develop self-regulation skills in infancy and are able to approach or avoid situations depending on their emotional impact.
How you can help:
A recent study suggests that “listening to recordings of play songs can maintain six- to nine-month-old infants in a relatively contented or neutral state considerably longer than recordings of infant-directed or adult-directed speech.”
The study explains that multimodal singing is more effective than maternal speech for calming highly aroused 10-month-old infants. It also suggests that playing songs (“The Wheels on the Bus,” for instance) are more effective than lullabies at reducing distress.
By the time he turns one, your infant already knows that you can help him regulate his emotions.
As he grows out of the infancy stage, he begins to understand that certain emotions are associated with certain situations. A number of studies suggest that fear is the most difficult emotion at this age. To help foster your kid’s emotional intelligence, you can start using age-appropriate approaches to talk to him about emotions and encourage him to name those emotions.
By the time she turns two, your kid is able to adopt strategies to deal with difficult emotions. For instance, she is able to distance herself from upsetting situations or to move toward more fulfilling situations.
How you can help:
As one study suggests, situation selection, modification, and distraction are the best strategies to help kids deal with anger and fear at this age. In other words, helping your toddlers avoid distressing situations or distracting him from those situations is one of the most effective emotion-regulation strategies.
As they grow older, toddlers can be taught to handle those situations by themselves. Naming emotions also helps toddlers learn that emotions are normal. Everyday opportunities provide occasions to talk to kids about emotions: “She sure looks angry.” “Why do you think he looks so sad?”
Toddlers also learn about managing their emotions by watching how we manage ours.
The childhood years are filled with emotional experiences. It is at this age that many secondary emotions come into play. It is during the childhood years that kids’ emotions are validated or invalidated, influencing future emotional reactions.
Although young kids are able to understand and differentiate appropriate from inappropriate emotional expressions, they still don’t necessarily know how to express their emotions, especially if they haven’t learned to identify and name them. It is now known that behavior such as tantrums, meltdowns and general acting is almost always associated with kids’ inability to manage difficult emotions.
How you can help:
Emotion regulation is not just about expressing emotions in a socially appropriate manner. It is a process that involves teaching your kid to identify emotions, helping her identify what triggers those emotions, and teaching her to manage those emotions by herself. When we teach kids that their emotions are valid, we help them view what they feel as normal and manageable.
Modeling appropriate behavior is also important during the childhood years. The best way to teach your child to react to anger appropriately is to show her how. Evidence suggests that kids pick up our emotions, and that those exposed to many negative emotions are more likely to struggle.
Ultimately, helping our kids manage their emotions begins by validating those emotions and providing an environment in which they feel safe to express them. As several studies have shown, when kids feel safe, they are more likely to develop and use appropriate emotion regulation strategies to deal with difficult feelings.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on parent.co