Hi Dr Justin,
My 6 year-old daughter’s emotional reaction to almost every situation seems out of proportion. For example; tears are her reaction to her school bag falling off her shoulder, not being able to do her buttons up, not hitting the ball as well as she’d like at golf (she goes to a golf academy for kids) or any other number of trivial matters.
We tell her all the time that practice and hard work has to be put into getting better at almost everything, I praise her all the time for the effort she puts in, not just when she achieves the desired outcome, but it just makes my blood boil when the tears start for everything! It’s so exasperating!
I’ve tried everything I can think of (from getting down to her level and trying to understand where she’s coming from, to sending her away until she calms down) but to no avail, so I end up getting angry myself. It’s embarrassing when out in public, I don’t want her to be ‘that’ kid that always cries! Any advice welcome!
Dr Justin responds:
Our children’s emotions can be terribly challenging – not to mention inconvenient. Parents seem consistently troubled by challenging emotions, big emotions, or emotions that could be socially undesirable – like having a sad face.
It’s ok to be upset
In my parenting presentations and workshops I often ask parents what emotions are ok and what emotions are not ok. Invariably, parents provide the enlightened response that all emotions are ok. Then I ask, “When your child is upset, angry, or crying, do you respond to them as though it is ok to be angry or upset or crying? Or do you do respond in a different way?”
Most parents acknowledge that they find their children’s emotions to be challenging (at best) and downright aggravating and punishable (at worst). The embarrassment you feel is normal. Your frustration is also typical. Not wanting your daughter to be ‘that kid who always cries’ is also understandable. But there are some important things to understand in order to help your daughter.
Children learn to regulate (or control) their emotions slowly as they get older. By around the age of 1, toddlers begin to try to calm themselves by rocking, chewing, or simply moving away from things that are upsetting. But they struggle when emotions get bigger.
During the pre-school years, children’s emotional regulation becomes more sophisticated as their brains develop and mature. This ability to regulate emotion still relies heavily on parental guidance and support, and when emotions get ‘big’ they still struggle and experience significant outbursts.
Between ages seven to nine years, emotion regulation develops substantially as children begin to regulate emotion according to ‘display rules’. This simply means that children at this age develop an understanding of when certain emotions are acceptable for display in specific contexts. As an example, a six year-old boy (or girl) will often still have a big sook in public because he does not quite know how to regulate his emotions yet AND he is not thinking about ‘display rules’. While seeing a six year-old cry in public is not unusual, it is rare to see such an upset response in a nine year-old because the older child understands the ‘display rules’ and has also developed greater emotional regulation capacity.
In short, children the age of your daughter are still very much in the learning phase when it comes to emotion regulation. Those emotions inside her are so big that they are hard to control (and she isn’t thinking about how people expect her to display those emotions yet).
Parents don’t get it
Further to the issue of the long time it takes for children to develop the ability to regulate their emotions, recent research suggests that parents tend towards an ‘egocentric bias’ when it comes to emotions. That means we rely on our emotions when assessing the emotions our children feel.
Our children must become annoyed with us. It seems that as parents, we have a tendency to think that because we are feeling fine, our children should be too. If we are anxious we imagine they must be anxious. If they are sad but we feel assured, we struggle to understand why their emotional world is inconsistent with ours. Then we say things like, “You’ll be right” or “Cheer up” – thinking that our optimism will help them, when in reality, it only makes us appear detached and makes them feel as though they are faulty for feeling something different to what we feel.
In considering your challenges, it seems that your daughter is behaving appropriately for her age, but this is both inconvenient and a little embarrassing. But she is not old enough to really regulate effectively, and it is possible that as a parent you’re making the same mistake most of us make by not really seeing the world through her eyes.
What your daughter needs
When your daughter is upset, she needs your compassion and understanding. I encourage you to work through the following steps:
- Turn to her and see the emotion as a chance to really connect with her.
- Understand where the emotion is coming from, and what is driving this ‘need’ to feel what she feels.
- Give her emotions a name, and offer support and comfort as you let her sit with the emotion.
- As she calms down (and when there is no audience), chat quietly about what she thinks is the best solution.
Ironically, the safer your daughter feels when emotions rise, the better she will be able to regulate them herself. The greater she feels emotionally ‘controlled’, the harder it will be for her to control her emotions. While you indicate that you ‘get down to her level’, she is needing more than that at her young age.
Focus on being attuned to her emotional world, seeing the world through her eyes, and patiently supporting and coaching her with her emotions. As you do so, she will feel comforted, her emotions will subside faster, and you will find that instead of having your blood boil, you will feel love and compassion, and you will help her more successfully.