You’ve heard it I’m sure, “Oh that’s such a first-world problem,” when there are bills to pay and big world issues around us, emotional and social wellbeing might sound petty. But as it turns out, emotions shape our health and happiness. Recent research with over 150 thousand individuals from 142 countries showed that emotions impact health and life expectancy all around the globe, rich and poor*.
But what does it mean for your child?
How do we support our child’s emotional health and wellbeing? I think the easiest way to think about it is to focus on your family relationships. Does your child feel that there is someone there for them; a secure base from which they can explore, experiment, take risks and learn? And when there are challenges, a meltdown, or their feeling overwhelmed, can they return to a safe haven where a loved one will be with them as they make sense of their big feelings? All of us (adults included) have a “love tank” and we need to know that there are loved ones we can turn to, especially when we are running on empty.
There are all sorts of emotions and none of them are bad. Emotions really only become unbearable when a child is regularly left alone to make sense of it. Our role as parents is to support our child as they head-off to explore, as well as when they return for comfort. Uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, frustration, shame and fear are part of life, and if we can be a kind calm presence during our child’s storm (of emotions) our child will learn to recognise and manage them.
You might be keen to support your child to be independent, to self-regulate their emotions. But before self-regulating your child first needs to co-regulate with you. It might take 50 or 500 times, but that’s how they learn. It can be uncomfortable at first to be with a distressed infant, or a toddler experiencing a tantrum, however, your kind calm presence takes the fear and shame out of your child’s experience.
When your infant or child feels overwhelmed, it’s a good time to press pause. Keep words to a minimum. Take some deep breaths and work to regulate your own emotions. Model what you want to see. Slow down and ‘be with’ your child. Pause and wonder: what my child might my child be feeling right now? I wonder what they might need from me?
Right now you might be asking when the discipline starts! One thing that’s true no matter what the age – when a person is experiencing big, overwhelming emotions, the stress hormones kick-in and it’s hard to think straight. The front part of the brain that is responsible for rational thoughts and decision-making switches off. When distressed, the body focuses on survival, making small children quite unpredictable –so best to work at lowering it before coming on strong with instructions. “Being with” your child through difficult times, helps them to navigate the storms of life.
They look to you and how you respond, to know how to feel and think and respond. Your child will look to you for comfort and they also look to you for pleasure. You are their world!
If you can slow down to delight in an experience with them, they will be sure to find it delight-worthy. You bring their world to life.
It’s a funny thing but when you are about to have a baby – so much of the focus of pregnancy is on the birth. In a sense it’s a bit like focusing solely on your wedding day when in fact it’s just the first day of a lifelong relationship. Before marriage, you grow to know your partner and work together to decide what your marriage will look like and what you want your relationship to be moving forward. Too much parenting advice focuses on the ‘doing’ (sleeping, feeding, education) with little focus on the actual ‘being’ (in relationship). It’s is the trust and delight in each other that truly counts. That’s the gold!
*Research: Pressman, Gallagher & Lopez, 2013
Sharon Cooke is an early family and parenting specialist, and the service coordinator for Playgroup WA’s Mother-Baby Nurture Program