Learning to love

Social and emotional development has a lasting impact on a child’s wellbeing and often determines a child’s school readiness and academic success. Children who do not receive adequate love and nurturing in their early years often struggle to bond but also fall short of reaching their full cognitive potential.

Research has shown that healthy social and emotional development in young children correlates with healthy cognitive development and therefore creates a strong foundation for future school achievement.  Stressors in these early years also have lifelong social and emotional consequences.

Children who are not exposed to the warmth and love of a parent or caregiver often struggle to form meaningful relationships and express their desires in an appropriate manner.

While Cotlands focuses on children in remote and under-resourced areas, children in more affluent communities are also at risk of experiencing social stressors that hinder emotional growth.

Emotional and social development determines our ability to name our feelings and communicate effectively with others. If children are unable to identify emotions and articulate these emotions in a constructive way they will become frustrated. This frustration could lead to a child withdrawing from social interactions or acting out.

It is vital that parents assist their children in developing emotional and social skills by naming their feelings and by guiding them through the expression of those feelings.

Children who are more socially aware and have a higher emotional intelligence are more likely to be sociable, cooperative and optimistic. They tend to be less impulsive and tend to perform better academically.

As parents and caregivers you can assist children develop emotional and social skills by acknowledging their feelings and their perspective. By acknowledging your child’s emotions you allow them to share their feelings without fear. Often negative feelings that are not shared are stored and may lead to greater frustration if not expressed. Phrases such as: “You look pretty upset. Tell me what happened?”, “Well done, I can tell how excited you are”  or “I know  I frustrate you when I interrupt your TV time but it is time to eat your supper”, show you acknowledge their feelings and shows empathy.

The next step is to help your child name their emotion. Using phrases like “You sound upset” or “You look worried” helps introduce them to an emotional vocabulary that improves communication.

Next, encourage your child to talk about their feelings. Ask open ended questions such as “how did that make you feel?” or “You look sad, can you tell me why?” When you talk with your child, give them time to respond and make eye contact on their level.

Help them to identify facial expressions and empathise with their peers. Showing compassion for other children is important for a child’s emotional maturity. By expressing kindness to others you help build your child’s social awareness. Taking your toddler to a charity to donate toys or clothing also creates an awareness of those who are less fortunate. When performing this exercise also point out similarities between the child and those who are less fortunate. This helps a child identify with other people and realise that others have the same emotions as your child. It is important to praise your child when they display empathic behaviour. 

Children with physical challenges should be given room to discuss their feelings around their illness or disability. Parents should be cautious of over-protecting their children and must create space for independence as this builds self-confidence. 

Help your child develop appropriate coping mechanisms in stressful situations. Children who isolate themselves from other children or children who are easily agitated, irritable, lethargic, lazy, or aggressive may be suffering from stress. A sudden change in behaviour is often a sign that the child is stressed. Allowing a child to talk through their feelings helps reduce any anxiety they may be feeling. Reading children stories about children with feelings just like theirs helps them realise that other children have been through a similar situation too.

Teaching your child to calm themselves down is a useful technique that allows them to self-regulate and to practice independence. One simple method is to ask your child to take a few deep breaths when they begin to feel tense. Another positive method is to teach your child to count to 5 slowly when they feel threatened.

When your child demonstrates self-control compliment them on their behaviour with phrases like; “I’m impressed with the way you used your words to let me know you are upset”, or “‘you really stayed calm when you were doing that puzzle, and couldn’t find the right piece, well done”.

Teach your child alternative ways of expressing their frustrations. Role playing can help your child express their frustrations in a more positive way.

Children need to learn positive self-talk from the day they are born. By using positive language when engaging with your child you are building their self-confidence and empowering them to take charge of their feelings. Children who use positive speech when referring to themselves are less likely to use negative speech on other children.

The best way to teach your child emotional and social skills is by demonstrating positive behaviour yourself. Children mimic adults around them and depend on your social cues to guide their behaviour.

Parents must be aware of what they say and how they react to situations when their toddlers are present. Remember, just because children cannot use expressive language this does not mean they don’t understand and copy what we are expressing in front of them.

Infants are equally susceptible to emotional interactions. Mothers who suffer from depression often have difficulty bonding with their babies. This emotional tension is felt by the child. Studies in the US have shown that infants can experience real depression as early as 4 months of age.

It is important to create a safe environment for your infant. They require a variety of experiences to stimulate cognitive and emotional development. Games such as peek-a-boo teach your child anticipation and help them identify facial expressions.

Cotlands uses play based methods to develop emotional and social skills in children. Games such as fantasy play, dress up and art help children express their emotions and learn new social cues. Group play is also important for toddlers. If you have just one child, make an effort to find children their age to interact with.

Our work with children in under-resourced communities is vital as many children in these circumstances are exposed to inappropriate and often violent behaviour. Without the language tools to express themselves or play based activities to help them de-stress these children will grow up to become agitated, frustrated and/or aggressive. They will lag behind in school further exasperating their economic situation which may lead to a continued cycle of depression and anxiety.