Kids are not born with the capacity to manage strong emotions but with the help of their parents, it is something they can learn through experience 

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An alternative way to deal with your toddlers tantrums

17th May 16 | Family

Kids are not born with the capacity to manage strong emotions but with the help of their parents, it is something they can learn through experience 

I recently had a fascinating conversation with my good friend who is a Cognitive Neuroscientist. She knows a lot about the brain and she can explain it to someone like me, who would not know as much. What she told me is important to share with you, as it is one of those things we really want to get right as parents. She explained the part of the child’s brain which is responsible for understanding and managing emotions. 

We are not born into this world equipped with a brain which can manage emotions. To learn how to deal with our emotions, our brain has to develop many connections between the neurons. These connections develop through repetition - we are exposed to certain situations many times and our brain learns what it means to be in situation A and how to deal with it. With time our brain gets physically bigger; more connections create a bigger brain. This process is the fastest early on in life between 1 and 3 years of age.

So we can look at the brain as a tool to deal with emotions. Until we are 3 years old, this tool isn't big enough to handle difficult emotional situation. There are not enough connections in small children's brains to calm themselves down when they become angry, very anxious, very upset. These are the situations when children need help to 1: calm the immediate storm and 2: learn how to do it in the future.

This is why parents (guardians) involvement in the early years of their children's lives is crucial. The parents or guardians role is to assist children when they experience strong emotions. Assisting means:

-    repeatedly and as calmly as possible (in a given situation) explaining to children what is going on with them,

-    talking to them,

-    being emotionally available to them,

-    offering comfort and patience,

-    containing their emotions and also our own  (I explained the process of containment here).

Of course nobody gets it right all of the time. It's very natural that sometimes we lose patience or don't have the capacity to be available to our children. But this knowledge about the brain developing the capacity to deal with emotions helps us make judgements about emotional situations.

With this information we now don't have to consider whether or not we should let the baby cry a bit, encouraging it to learn self-soothing - we now know that being alone with strong emotions doesn't teach children to deal with them. The baby needs us to hear what is going on and learn from this. We might not be able to be there for the child every single time, but at least we know the direction.

For me this finding is also very important, because it supports my belief, that containment is an important skill which parents should practice to aid their children’s healthy development.


Agata lives in Galway, she is a mum of two children and author of blog Balancing She promotes creative and confident parenting. She is a psychologist, with experience of working as a personal skills trainer and academic teacher. Find her on Twitter @agata4parents