(My earliest professional work with children took place in a child care center, working with infants and toddlers. Part of my responsibilities included occasionally contributing to the center’s newsletter. I hung onto my articles, and am including a sampling of the more relevant pieces. Enjoy!)

Toddler Classroom, Summer 2006

You drop a stack of papers you’d just organized and they spill across the floor. So what do you do? Burst into loud, sad wails with tears streaming down your face, of course. Later, your spouse tells you that instead of staying home with your feet up, you have to get dressed up and go out to dinner with the in-laws…now! Your response? Throw yourself on the floor and kick and scream as loudly as possible. Another day, you get to the mall and watch in horror as someone in front of you snags the last pair of the boots you’d had your eye on. What could be more appropriate than rushing the person and trying to pry them from his or her hands, while screaming “MINE!!” at the top of your lungs?

You can see where this is going, right? Of course those responses are out of line for adults, but substitute Cheerios for papers; diaper change for dinner with in-laws, and toy for boots and you will see a remarkably familiar picture. Why are children so emotional? What makes their emotions so very volatile? (This is a probably good place to point out that all of their emotions are extreme: their joyful expressions are just as intense as their sad or angry ones, but we generally don’t cringe away from or want to talk them out of “happy” emotions. And throughout our center, we strive to allow children a full range of emotions, to let them know that all of their feelings are valid, even the negative ones.)

The children’s sometimes extreme emotions may seem out of place with their newfound skills. They’ve moved from crawling to walking and running, from being spoon fed to feeding themselves, and from using cries to communicate to using language. They seem so grown up to us, especially when viewed in the context of our classroom, which is designed with their growing autonomy specifically in mind. You can have real conversations with them, they understand so much of what you say and of what is going on around them, and they can be so cooperative and helpful at times. It almost seems like they are simply short adults.

But that, my friend, is dangerous thinking.

Children still stumble sometimes as they move, need occasional help with their eating, and at times resort to tears instead of words. In short, they are still developing. They, of course, deserve the same respect you would afford any other human being; part of that respect is recognizing where they are developmentally and meeting them there. Expecting mature, even-handed responses to life’s little issues can be asking for trouble…for both of you. Children’s extreme emotions may be better understood in the context of Freud’s theory of personality development.

Freud, as you may recall from Psych 101, believed that our personalities are shaped by three competing parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id, which is intact and fully developed at birth, is completely selfish and pleasure-seeking. In fact, this is actually a good thing because it helps children to get their basic needs met: it drives them to demand food, dry diapers, sleep, etc. The Id doesn’t stop to ask questions; it seeks immediate gratification without pause to consider anyone or anything. However, the Id does not always reign supreme: throughout the first three years of life, the next piece, the Ego, is developing. The Ego is in charge of learning the rules, the ways of society. The Ego, according to Freud, is responsible for getting the needs of the Id met in a socially responsible way. The Id wants that toy NOW, while the Ego knows you have to ask for it. It will be a few more years before the Superego, in charge of morals, develops enough for children to start learning that it is wrong to hurt someone to get that toy.

What all that means in relation to your children is that they are still being heavily influenced by a very willful, instinctual drive that they are just now starting to learn how to control. And that control can be tenuous, as I’m sure you’ve all witnessed. This is complicated by the fact that children are in the midst of working through Erikson’s 2nd stage of Human Development: Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt. A willful Id in combination with a strong desire to be autonomous in all things…even in things they aren’t able to accomplish or achieve makes for a stressful state. Add to that a fledgling impulse control and increasing cognitive awareness about the way things work (and the way they think things should work), and it’s frankly a wonder that your children are ever peaceful!

But they are often peaceful, and they are starting to learn to control their emotions and to self-regulate. They seek out comfort items when sad: blankets (“banket” “sssssss”), stuffed animals (“goggie”), or pacifiers (“plug,” “na-na,” “ba-ba”). They also seek out trusted caregivers who help them calm themselves and offer comfort. They self-regulate through words( “uh-oh!” “made a mess!” “oops!” or “what happened?!”). They self-regulate through actions (shrugging shoulders, spreading out their hands, palm up, or exaggerated facial expressions). They name their emotions (“sad!” or “mad!”) and they ‘use their words’ (“don’t like it” “stop!” “[give it] back!” and “space”). In short, they do all of the things that you yourself would do when you need to help you to regulate your own emotions.

There are several ways you can continue to help your children with their emotional development. Firstly, try to remain calm. This is probably the most important (and challenging!) aspect because children are often feeling out of control of their emotions and if you lose control (or look like it), it can be doubly scary for them and things will spiral downward from there. In addition, keeping yourself calm will keep your head level, and that will help you negotiate the situation. Along this same line, prepare yourself to move on from the emotion and the situation as quickly as you can. Lingering resentment or anger over an altercation with your child will lead to stress and possibly guilt on your child’s part, which is not a healthy outcome. Secondly, let your children have their emotions: let them experience them, feel them, know them, own them. Give them labels for their emotions so they can effectively express themselves. Finally, as you offer comfort and care to your emotional child, teach him or her how to calm themselves. Point out comfort items for them to retrieve, and allow them appropriate ways to vent (stomping, punching pillows, making faces…whatever works for your household). This helps children come full circle with their emotional development: having emotions, understanding them, expressing them appropriately.

So eventually, when your child grows up and faces an impromptu dinner with the in-laws, you can feel confident that even though he or she may feel like dropping to the floor and screaming like a toddler, he or she (probably) won’t.