Four Tips on Stimulating Emotional Development

We all want our children to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. The ability to understand their own emotions and to express them in accordance with the local culture and social norms is an important step towards becoming that. We know that young children need our help to express and manage their emotions.  Yet when children grow older we sometimes expect them to ‘behave’ and tend to forget that learning how to manage our emotions is a life-long process, something not even all adults have mastered well.

Emotional Development - Expat Child PsychologySo what can you do to make sure you won’t expect more of your children than they can offer in the heat of the moment? Here are four suggestions that will help you stimulate your child’s emotional development:

1) Name the feeling
The first step of managing emotions is to identify the emotions. Your child may be experiencing all kinds of bodily sensations without knowing where they come from or what they mean. As a parent, you will often know that the situation your child is facing would lead to an angry feeling, a happy, a sad or a scary one, or perhaps even a combination of several feelings at once (it does require a bit of perspective-taking from your end). By naming those feelings your child will learn which bodily sensation and type of situation corresponds to which emotion.

Instead of:
‘STOP! NAGGING! You are NOT getting another cookie!’

‘I see that you are very disappointed about not getting another cookie.’

2) Validate the feeling
Let your child know you understand they feel this way, for example by mirroring the facial expression and using a soothing tone of voice. This validation of the emotion will help your child feel understood and gain some control over their sensations. It also tells your child that it is okay to experience (this) emotion.

Instead of:
‘There is no need to cry!’

‘I understand you feel this way, I would be so sad too if I could not get what I wanted.’

3) Give feedback on negative behaviors
Even though your child may not yet have learned how to control their emotions or how to express them appropriately, some expressions are simply harmful or unacceptable. You have to tell your child about this.

Instead of:
‘Stop screaming!’

‘It is not helpful to scream so loud, it hurts my ears and it hurts your voice.’

4) Provide alternative ways to express
Now that your child knows it is okay to experience the emotion and that it is not okay to express those emotions in specific ways. However, your child does not know what to do instead. Therefore, it is helpful to provide an alternative.

Instead of:
‘Stop screaming!

‘Instead of screaming, you could try ….’

Alternative options (depending on the age & your own preference):
– A verbal response: saying ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘It makes me feel angry’, etc.
– A physical response: punching a boxing ball or pillow, running a distance, squeezing a stress ball, etc.
– A cognitive response: count to 10, distract yourself, etc.

Play & Education

Before, in the blog ‘About Toys’ I already said it: play is one of the most important means of child development. Children learn and develop through their exploration of toys and games, their language, physical abilities, social skills, cultural awareness, every part of development can be addressed by play. As Paula Vergunst & I will be giving a workshop (08/11/2013) exactly on this topic, here’s a little warming up in advance.

Someone who has done a lot of research on the topics of play, child development and education is Peter Gray. Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist, associated with Boston College. I have met with Peter Gray on a few occasions and his knowledge about playfulness and education always impress me.  Currently I am reading his newest book called‘Free to Learn, why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life’. 

As a result of his own research and personal experiences with his own son, Gray became increasingly concerned about the amount of time children spent playing nowadays and the quality of that play. He spent years of his career studying childhood, childhood education and child development from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychologists look at why certain psychological concepts and behaviors have occurred in terms of evolution & natural selection – similar to a biologists view on the physical characteristics of species. Gray used reports from anthropologists and knowledge from history to view how children were education in different times and cultures. The results of his study are very interesting and show that our society’s view on education is by far not the most natural or pleasant option for educating children.  In fact it shows that children can – and will, if allowed to – do most of their education themselves.

SAM_0466In short, Gray saw that children in (present day) hunter gatherer societies all over the world got lots of time for free play. In fact – even adults had lots of time for free play because hunting and gathering were not as time consuming as farming (though more of a risk, you never knew if you would find food). It is assumed that hunter-gatherer societies of our ancestors were quite similar to the ones that are still around today. Which means that before agricultural periods there was no formal way of educating children and most of their education came from within; kids desire to be similar to their mums and dads. They play and act out scenes they have seen or heard of, such as how to hunt and how to take care of kids. They learn from older kids who have played it many times before. They play it so often that they know how it works halfway in puberty when they are allowed to participate in the real thing – still in a playful manner. And gradually play becomes the real thing.

Over time, perceptions of child play and education changed together with other major changes in society. Agriculture was hard work, children in these societies often needed to work too and there was not much time for play. Industrialization came with education the way we know it now, but based on strict religious beliefs that the main thing children were supposed to learn was obedience to their superiors; harsh methods were used to educate children.

© Kutt Niinepuu | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Since the early twentieth century when education became mandatory in most Western countries, more and more demands are made of the education of our children; more hours at school, more homework… Next to that, children are very busy these days; going to daycare (still an adult-supervised situation) or sports (yet another one). Time for free unsupervised play is becoming more and more limited. This is one of Gray’s biggest concerns; his research shows that children educate (=learn everything there is to learn in order to be a successful person in society) themselves and adults are not supposed to interfere unless asked.

Looking back at our own childhoods, aren’t the moments of free play the moments we remember best? Aren’t these the moments we may remember as the most enjoyable, but also the moments we learned our most valued lessons?

This post was originally published on my old website on September 16th, 2013.

Of course this blog only gives a very limited view of the findings of Peter Gray, considering he wrote a whole book about it. If you’re interested, you can order his book online or in the Netherlands at the American Book Center (The Hague / Amsterdam).

Interested in the Play & Parenting Workshop? Click here to see whether it is scheduled again or ask us to present for your group/company.

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It’s not fair!

It’s not fair!’ is a commonly heard exclamation by young children. It is perhaps the most common cause for fights among siblings. But when we try to look at the situation from our adult point of view it might seem very fair. Is a child’s concept of fairness different from that of an adult? How does a concept such as the one of fairness develop in young children? Within a series of two blogs, I will attempt to answer these questions, looking at two influential developmental theories.

freeimage-5929189-webA toddler’s idea of fairness
Whenever I hear a kid say ‘it’s not fair!’ in a situation that does seem fair enough to me, I remember an incident from the daycare center I used to work at.

Many of the kids were – as always – playing with the train tracks when one of them started crying. I walked over and asked him what was wrong. He told me that another kid, a big five year old, took his toy train and now he had none. Apparently all the other wagons were being used by the other kids, and the culprit in question was now owner of three of them. As I was not sure what had happened I decided not to punish anyone and teach a lesson in fairness and sharing instead. I asked the kid with three wagons whether the other boy could have one, because he had three and the other kid had none. He did give the third wagon away, but then started crying. I was confused, had I missed something? Then he told me how it was not fair, because now he only had two wagons and he wanted three! I tried to tell him that if anything, it was not fair to the other boy because he still only had one wagon and this guy had two, but my efforts were in vain. He was not yet ready to see fairness as a concept that relates to everyone in the situation, his concept of fairness only involved himself.

The clue of the difference between our beliefs about fairness in this and many similar situations lies within the development of a ‘Theory of Mind’.

Theory of mind
When a child is born he believes to be at the center of the universe. There is no recognition of other people’s needs and wants, of their unique individuality and thoughts. If anything, the child believes everyone wants, needs and thinks the same. When the child becomes a toddler, she becomes more aware of the world around her. She starts realizing other people are different and have their own ‘minds’ which are separate from hers. This understanding that other people are different and have their own needs, wants and thoughts is called theory of mind. The development of a theory of mind is a process that takes several years, starting between the second and third year and not entirely finished until the end of preschool.

The concept of fairness develops in combination with the theory of mind. At first, when the child is the center of his own universe, him having everything he desires is the only fair he knows. If a young child wants something, say a stuffed animal, it seems very fair to him to have the animal even if someone else doesn’t. After all, he believes others want the same thing, thus they must want him to have the animal and not someone else!


With thanks to ~Picturesbyclay

The concept of fairness becomes more complex over time. By the end of this process, usually around 6 or 7 years of age, children seem to think fair is when each person has an equal share of something. No longer does the child they believe everyone thinks and wants the same, and he understands now that others want things for themselves too. Realizing that this is not always possible, children this age start looking for the best solution which keeps everybody as happy as possible. Of course, it can still be difficult to understand if something is actually fair when the child has not learned division yet, and even though the child may know sharing equally is fairer than not sharing, he might not always want to act accordingly!

Equality is fair
After children have developed a theory of mind, they are no longer the center of their own universe. They no longer think it is fair if they have everything they want and they now understand that others have wants and needs for themselves. Children of around 6 or 7 years old understand that sharing equally is fair although they might not always be happy to do so. And who could argue with that, don’t we all have something we wouldn’t want to share with anyone?

Yet, adults still have a more complex concept of fairness at this point. Each having an equal part is not always seen as the fairest solution. Concepts like ‘an eye for an eye’ are history and today we have social services giving away money or goods for free to some whereas others have to work and pay for it. Many people believe this is fair, considering that those who benefit from social services have nothing to begin with. Another important developmental theory seems to play a role in this later development of the concept of fairness. Read more about this in my next blog!

This post was originally published on my old website, Aug 19th, 2013.

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About Toys

Play is one of the most important means for child development. At a very young age, children play to explore the physical world around them, while at the same time challenging their fine and gross motor skills. The toys they are most happy to play with are of a physical nature, stimulating to the senses. Later on, children play as a means to develop social skills. They learn to win and to lose, to reason with others, to be sportsmanlike, etc. while playing games outside on the playground or board games. They might also reenact parts from adult life to incorporate the values and norms of the culture, such as when children play house.SAM_0460

Unfortunately, nowadays some children are becoming victims of the consumer society, limiting rather than stimulating their development. How often have I come across children who were bored just because no game console was available! Or children that were bored because they had too many toys to choose from? During my trip to Africa, I realized children do not need many superb toys to enjoy themselves and stimulate their development. Consider the little Masai boy in the picture who made a game of rolling the tire around.

What can you do to stimulate your child’s development through play?
Some tips:

  • Provide your child with toys that fit his or her developmental needs. Especially during the younger years, toys will need to be replaced on quite a regular basis as the child progresses through different developmental stages.
  • Provide toys that target different areas of development. Think about gross motor skills, fine motor skills, personal independence, communicative skills, imitation, fantasy, social skills, visual perception & insight, focus & attention, etc.
  • Limit the amount of toys your child has access to. If there are only a few toys to choose from, your child is likely to play longer with each of these toys than he would if there were many toys readily available. This will not only improve chances for development in the area those toys target, it might also improve your child’s attention and focus. Furthermore, it might stimulate your child’s fantasy when he or she tries to invent new ways to enjoy the same toys.
  • Limit your child’s digital time. Some digital input is all right as long as there’s not too much of it; children learn to use digital sources (laptop, Ipad) very quickly and can use them to learn new things by watching YouTube videos or reading Wikipedia.
  • Be careful when buying irritable toys for your child. You know, the kind that makes a lot of noise and lights but does not really seem to add to your child’s development. You do not want to get annoyed with your child because he likes this toy so much!
  • Make sure your child has enough time for free play. Kids already have so much structure at school, daycare, sports, etc. nowadays. Children use free play to learn the things that interest them and therefore need lots of time to ‘just play’. Join in the fun some of the time and make sure there’s still plenty of time for play without adult supervision.

This article was originally published on my old website on Aug 5, 2013.
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