Almost from the moment our children enter the world, our thoughts turn to their development. We notice – and are encouraged to monitor – their progression, from hand-eye coordination to first words, onto first steps, and then sentence construction, toilet training, simple counting and letter recognition, then phonics and so on.
All this can leave us with the impression that a child’s journey of development is something akin to a bus ride: they ride from one stop to the next, leaving the last milestone behind, making linear progress (sometimes swiftly, sometimes amid heavy traffic) until they reach the destination that will make the trip worthwhile.
A stranger in a strange land
It might be more helpful to think of your child as a tourist making their way to that exciting destination in an unfamiliar city. They zig and zag their way across the map, course correcting as they go, rather than travelling on a single road. Unexpected obstacles can trigger deep frustration but breakthroughs in understanding cause bursts of delight.
Guides and maps will be helpful, but sometimes careful observation of other people’s behaviour will be more useful. They may need to ask advice from time to time, but learning to trust their instincts and take chances is equally useful. Most importantly of all, there are an infinite number of routes to get to the end goal.
As Daisy approaches her fourth birthday, she is so much more of a little girl than a baby. Her grandfather remarks that the Sun is moving through the sky, and she reminds him that the Earth is moving, not the Sun. She has a keen sense of justice and wants to explain to people that it’s against the rules to have a barbecue in the park! She apologises to her Daddy when she doesn’t hear him, explaining that she was “being distracted by something on the iPad.”
Her growing maturity means that it can come as something of a shock to her parents, and even to me, when her behaviour seems regressive.
One step forward, two steps back?
A child’s development in different areas moves forwards at different speeds, and can sometimes stall or reverse – like that metaphorical tourist in the new city, children sometimes have to double back to get their bearings.
In Daisy’s case, this has exhibited itself in some recent trouble with sleeping. Her parents thought those interrupted nights – one of the most difficult facts of early parenthood – were challenges of the past. When we talk to Daisy about why she cannot fall asleep and why she’s waking up more often, her response tugs at your heart strings: “I don’t want to close my eyes because I only have bad dreams.”
Bad dreams or ‘night terrors’ are not uncommon in children of Daisy’s age and can have many triggers, including emotional distress or anxiety (and let’s face it there have been a lot of reasons for children to feel anxious in recent months).
Daisy has been exhibiting separation anxiety from her Mummy and while this feels like it has come out of the blue, it may be linked to the looming start of her first steps into formalised education – beginning her first year at the local nursery.
How to understand your child’s emotions
Gaining a nuanced understanding of a child’s emotions is extremely difficult. They lack the experience and vocabulary to articulate their feelings; often, they don’t understand those emotions themselves (and let’s be honest, us adults are often in the same boat).
Whatever the cause of Daisy’s night-time anxiety, it will be helpful to explore the subject of her emotions with her. Emotions can feel like a very abstract subject to address with learning aids, when compared with numeracy or nature, yet there is a growing number of toys and activities on the market to make that easier for parents and grandparents alike.
Recognising facial expressions and their associated emotions is key to a child’s development, and Yellow Door’s set of hardy, tactile Emotion Stones and Self-Regulation Stones – engraved with simple, bold designs – are a great way to have open-ended discussions with your child about their feelings, whether they feel proud, shy, bored, confused or frustrated.
On a similar note, Todd Parr’s Feelings Flashcards from Play Therapy Supply feature 20 cards covering 40 different emotions. Each colourful card is illustrated by the award-winning children’s book author and features an opposing feeling on each side (eg silly/serious; calm/nervous) and like the Emotion Stones, can be used in a wide variety of activities.
While those products give children a physical representation of their feelings to describe, the bright, robust See My Feelings Mirror and Double-Sided Mirror Board from Learning Resources ‘All About Me’ range give children the opportunity to recognise and then identify their own emotions by considering their reflection and comparing it with those of other children.
How does Teddy feel?
Of course, investing in resources to help you explore feelings with your children isn’t the only option available when they are feeling anxious; talking and human contact is usually the best form of ‘therapy’.
Sometimes the right activity can help a child look at the issue from ‘the third person’, and that detachment can make it easier for them to think and talk about the problem. The easiest way to do this is to pick up a favourite doll or teddy and ‘give them the emotion’ in a play context. In this way, your child can play the role of the mummy or daddy and help their toy through their emotional challenge.
Finally, remember that the journey of your child’s development is important, so take a moment to appreciate the chaos and the gradual progress they are making. Think back to the last time you were a stranger in a new place; the stories about how we reach our goal often prove to be more memorable, enriching and interesting than the destination itself.
Granny Smith says…
- We all need a little extra help with our emotions right now and our children are no exception (not that we grandparents ever need any excuse to be more loving or understanding!)
- As I noted on Twitter a few weeks ago, collaborative creative play between carer and child – with play dough, paint or a colouring book – is another great way for children to de-stress and express their feelings. It’s the therapeutic process, not the product, that matters. If adults join in, it can de-stress them too!