Children who are well loved and secure are refreshingly open about what they are feeling. This is part of their charm. Of course, don’t expect your five years old to understand you might not want him to repeat your negative review of the pastors last sermon while the pastors at the house for dinner!
To understand the emotions of a child you first have to understand the stages of development. What is quite normal in one stage of development may be a symptom in need of investigation in an older child. Several theories on child development exist. Erikson’s eight stages of development cover the entire life span. Piaget a Swiss psychologist developed a stage theory as well. You may want to read these more deeply.
The first stage runs roughly from birth to age two. In this stage children are extremely egocentric and believe the world literally revolves around them. Very young babies from birth to about eight months can make no differentiation between themselves and their mothers or primary caretakers. For a very young baby mother is simply an extension of himself and the baby does not know his mother is a separate person. An infant according to Piaget does not even understand an object such as a toy exists when it is out of site until four to eight months.
I recently had occasion to speak to a young mother who felt her three month old baby was being bad because the baby boy peed on me in a diaper change. Another young mother I spoke to felt she was training her six week old infant to not wet her diaper as much by refusing to change her more than four times a day! These mother needed a good deal of support to understand infants aren’t capable of the control needed to intentionally pee on someone or control their bodily functions
I’ve often heard parents talk about spoilingtheir child by holding them too much. While it is true by cause and effect a baby may figure out crying brings comfort or holding, spoiling implies willfulness and knowledge of right and wrong an infant is simply not capable of. Such language can set up negative dynamic between parent and child when parent think of their infant as spoiled for doing what is simply a natural developmental activity. Holding your infant often doesn’t spoil her it makes her feel loved. The goal of the first stage is to develop trust. Trust that the world is safe, my needs will be met and I am loved.
One of the more difficult stages of this period begins at age two. At this stage the child understands he is a separate person in ways that can be exasperating! The drive to independence has arrived. While it can be a trying time remember you will want this child to be a self-sufficient and independent adult one day. The seeds of that adult are being planted during this stage. Problems occur because your two to three year old is full of emotions and has no ego developed yet to properly contain and express them. Actually, I’ve known some adults like that! In your two year olds case this is just a developmental stage she will outgrow if all goes well. Temper tantrums are the norm at this age. Don’t attempt to reason with a two year old in a tantrum. By definition a tantrum is an unreasonable discharge of emotions. It will blow over and the less attention you give it the better. This is a case of extinguishing a behavior you don’t want while understanding this is normal for your Child’s age. Two to three year olds are naturally self-centered and possessive. Because their task at this age is to develop a sense of I, saying no a lot and not wanting to share my toy is a natural part of the age. Concepts such as sharing are beyond their ability to understand. You can teach your three year old to obey and let little Johnnie who is visiting have their favorite red truck to play with but sharing will not be the lesson learned. A better choice might be to put up any special toys before Johnnie arrives. Try to remember your child is awash in a storm of emotions and doesn’t yet have the skill to cope with them. You must limit inappropriate behavior or your child will never learn self-control. It’s also important to be sure your child knows it is the behavior and not her you disapprove of.
From the ages of four to about seven your child is in the magical thinking stage. My four year old son loved the Texas Ranger show on TV. He watched it raptly every week. I once ask him where he thought the Texas Ranger lived and he said in the TV. This same child could tell long and involved stories about adventures he had that didn’t and couldn’t of happened but he was quite convinced they did! One involved riding a dolphin into the sun! We had gone to the beach that summer. This is a normal stage of development and not a moral issue. Your child is not lying he is thinking creatively and in a stage where the line between reality and imagination are often blurred.
From the age of about eight to approximately eleven your child still thinks very concretely. If you say something metaphorically such as the roofs going to come down over that one she may believe the roof is going to actually fall. This is often the easiest calmest age emotionally. The hormones of puberty have not arrived and a sufficient ego and socialization has been developed to mediate emotions into appropriate expression,
Somewhere between eleven and thirteen puberty begins. It’s the terrible twos only bigger and with a better vocabulary. Awash with hormones, insecurity, peer pressure, a drive to belong and be independent at the same time, your child emotions will probably fluctuate wildly.
This can be a very difficult time for parent and child. The job of a parent is to set boundaries for safety while encouraging decision making and allowing their child to suffer the consequences of those decisions. The goal is to produce a self sufficient adult who knows how to make good decisions. This sound much easier than it is and bumps and problems are the norm.
Moodiness, wanting to be with friends and not family, testing of limits, and experimenting with identities is all normal at this age. Pick your battles. You may not like purple hair but is it really a battle worth fighting. On the other hand not being allowed to go to an un-chaperoned coed party may be worth the fight.
I once read a wonderful book about teenagers and parenting them. It basically said keep it simple. There are only three rules. Be safe. Stay connected. Be respectful. This covers about everything and is much easier for your teen to remember too!
Understanding your child emotions throughout all the stages they go through will go far in helping you be a better parent.