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Thursday, 13 August 2015

Skills in emotions: A key to children's success

Understanding emotions and learning how to manage them is a skill that children learn, it is not one that is inbuilt. From the time they are born, most kids will have a carer that is loving, warm and attuned to the baby's emotions. If you watch many parents of young children, you will see that they are consistently providing their child with feedback on how the child is travelling emotionally. They help them to navigate the ups and downs that their child feels. They may say "You look happy, you are enjoying that, that feels good" or "you seem angry, how can I help you calm down" or even " you are sad, I can give you a hug to help you feel better". 

Children need this consistent feedback on their emotional state to make sense of the big, overwhelming emotions that they are experiencing. Initially, this feedback helps them to be able to name their emotions and recognise when they feel angry, sad, happy etc. Then, they start to learn that other people can help them feel better. Eventually, they start to learn that they can calm themselves down, or that they can help themselves to feel better. 

By the time they get to school, most kids will be on the path to starting to understand and manage their emotions. We know from the research that this skill, of being able to understand and manage emotions, is central to building learning skills and developing and keeping friendships. 

But what about the kids who don't get this consistent feedback from a young age? 

Children who are exposed to lots of adversities or trauma from a young age are more likely to miss out on this development of understanding their emotions. The reasons that they miss out on this are complex, but some of the reasons that parents or carers may not be able to help their children develop this skill include: 

  • multiple adversities that lead to family stress, with less attention to the baby or child's needs. 
  • parents or carers who did not have this skill taught to them when they were a child. 
  • parental mental health difficulties or substance abuse may mean that the parent or carer may not be attuned to the needs of the baby or child. 
  • overly chaotic households where little or no rhythm or routine means less time for the baby or child. 
Children may also live in environments where they are overwhelmed by stress, uncertainty or fear, and without someone that can help them make sense of this. 

When children have not had the opportunities presented to them to develop this understanding and ability to manage their emotions, it can potentially lead to difficulties in several different areas of their life. This can include: 
  • difficulties being settled and calm in the classroom, which can interrupt their learning or mean that they are unable to take in the information they need. 
  • overwhelming emotions can lead to behaviours that may be disruptive. 
  • difficulties in making and keeping friends. 
  • behaviours at home that parents and carers may find tricky to deal with. 
The ARC (Attachment, Self - Regulation, Competency) framework for intervention features emotional skill development as one of the core features of working with children who have experienced trauma and multiple adversity. If offers a theoretically based way of working directly with children, with parents and carers, and within systems to build skills for children in emotion recognition, modulation and expression. Here, at the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network (ACATLGN) we are using the ARC framework for our trauma sensitive schools project, TRUST in Schools. 

What can be done? 

All children need to be helped to develop the skills to recognise, understand and manage their emotions. It will make a real difference to how they travel through life. Adults involved in the lives of children can do this by talking about: 
  • their own emotions, including the difficult emotions. 
  • ways to manage emotions and modelling positive ways to manage emotions. 
  • how emotions get bigger and smaller and change over time. 
and also by: 
  • helping children to label their emotions. You can say "you seem sad", or "you are yelling a lot, I think you are feeling angry". You don't have to get this right every time - the child will let you know if your guess is not correct! 
  • suggesting ways that the child can manage their emotions: "Maybe if you talk to me about what is going on, you will feel better"; "Sometimes running and jumping around can help people feel better when they are angry". 
  • making a real attempt to try to understand what is happening for the child and communicating to them that you care about them and how they are feeling. 
  • not punishing children for some of the difficult behaviours that may arise out of their overwhelming emotions. 

Social and emotional learning programs implemented at a school wide level and incorporated into the curriculum are also a great way to help all children to understand and manage their emotions, but these programs are additionally beneficial for children who have experienced adversity and trauma. 

Whether you are a parent or carer, a therapist, an educator, or someone else who works with children, we can all spend more time thinking about how to help kids build the skills they need to understand and manage their emotions.