The storm within-Dealing with a toddler’s emotional self

In an earlier post I spoke of being honest with my own emotions. I think that it is deeply important we are honest about our feelings in a simple and age appropriate way with the children that inhabit our lives.  They deserve to see that we have bad days too.  They have much to gain from watching those they love in their lives grow and recover from minor or major emotional issues in life.

Sometimes I have found that it is far easier for me to be honest about my emotions than to let the children around me express theirs freely.  This can be for many reasons.  Sometimes I see myself prejudging their experience, “Oh you’re okay!”, even though I should know better.  Other times I just find myself trying to fix things in order to help keep my toddler happy or calm, again…I should know better.  Finally, at the end of a long week when the kids around me are worn out, sick of being away from home and need more than I can give (I know every preschool teacher has been there) I just lose the patience to tune into each individual emotion.  In those cases I just want to do ANYTHING to get them to be quiet.

An article by Janet Lansbury that describes a small girl’s emotional expression of grief as she comes upon a squished snail got me thinking about how frequently we cut children’s emotions off at the core.  Especially with toddlers.  With their less than stellar language ability, lack of self-control and healthy lungs it can be difficult to let a toddler’s emotions run the gamut on a daily basis.  For those of us that work with toddlers we often mistakenly use tools like distraction to halt emotions in their tracks.  In many ways it is what we have been taught to do. Keep our babies ‘happy’.  There must be something wrong with a crying baby.  With the best of intentions we try to quiet the emotional storm that is attempting to work itself out inside the mind of a toddler.  This work is born of love but is it the best we can do for our babies?

I would argue that it is not.  In this article on toddler’s grief the toddler is allowed to go through their own process of feeling for the snail (who probably seemed like a friend to them).  This included an obvious period of cathartic toddler tears.  Then the toddler, allowed to work though things on their own, helped heal herself and move on. This toddler must have had many chances to feel through the issues and struggles that weave their way through her daily life.  If she can do this now (and I know many of us still have issues with processing pain, loss and grief in an effective way) how much easier will her path be as an adult? What then does this mean for children who aren’t as lucky?

In our ever changing society we need increased resilience to life’s many challenges.  As parents and caregivers it is our responsibility to trust children from the very beginning in the knowledge of their emotions.  The phrase ‘You’re okay!’ should be wiped from our collective memory.  Instead I would like to replace it with a sensitive adult who will sit by with quiet empathy as they go through what they will.  I don’t want to confuse the issue by in any way implying that children should be left alone with their emotions.  To the contrary I feel that children, especially young toddlers and preschoolers, should be well supported during emotional stresses.  We just need to be careful we aren’t stopping them in their tracks.

I aim to sit on my hands, bite my tongue and take deep breaths as I let Collin (and our daily troupe of buddies) reach into the deepest parts of their emotional selves.  Even as every bone in my body might tell me to just get that baby quiet, or as strangers stare in a public place.  I WILL give him the freedom of emotion he deserves because he deserves it now, and because he will better handle emotions on his own one day if he knows freedom now.

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