Sunday, August 23, 2015

Crying Baby, Smarter Baby: How to Turn Crying into Valuable Learning Opportunities

"I am glad I am not there". Unfinished art by F.M., 2014

By Daphna Ram PhD.* and Elaine Cheung, M.S. Psychology

Your child is crying. Sobbing, even. Hysterical. The trigger? She can’t find her favorite, all-important teddy bear. While frustrating for both you and your child, there may be a way to salvage this situation and let it become a “teaching moment”— an opportunity for you to share with your child some important aspects regarding emotion recognition, empathy, and interpersonal relationships.


It may be difficult to try to reason with your child during these situations. She is crying. Do you know why she’s crying? Does she even know? Trying to talk to your child during this time, though not easy, is a great way to get a glimpse into her feelings and the way she interprets and makes sense of situations.

For example, it’s possible she’s genuinely sad because she lost something important or she may be angry because she thinks it’s unfair that she lost something important. Trying to help her understand what she’s feeling and why she feels this way is critical. This gives the parent the opportunity to help the child differentiate between emotions. This is a key part of emotion recognition- recognizing emotion in yourself, and being able to understand which emotional outcomes may arise out of particular situations. Recognizing emotions is also first step in the child’s own emotion regulation process- if a child can label and understand an emotion, he or she is better able adapt feelings to certain situations. 

Helping your child become aware of her own feelings and the situations that lead to them also helps her become more sensitive to the needs and perspectives of others, thereby helping the development of perspective-taking. This also helps the development of empathy- our ability to feel what someone else is feeling. If your child is upset about losing a toy, for example, you can ask her what she thinks is the best way to respond or how to respond if someone else is feeling that way. This allows you to both comfort your own child and help her think about how best to comfort others.  Furthermore, this allows you to further emphasize perspective-taking—mentioning that not everyone may want to be comforted in the same way, and that people have different thoughts, feelings, and needs.

Understanding our own feelings and that of others also paves the way for altruism- engaging in acts that help others without expecting any perceived benefit ourselves. A critical part of knowing when and how to help others involves understanding the other person’s perspectives and emotions. To help someone in distress, we must first understand that the person is feeling distress.

While being able to talk to your child about feelings and unpacking emotionally charged situations may be ideal, it is often not realistic. However parents can help children practice emotion recognition, perspective taking, altruism, and empathy through everyday conversation.  Having open conversations with children about emotions enables them to see that emotions are not something to be ashamed of and allows them to better explore, express, and control their own feelings and better relate to others. 

Parents can facilitate children’s emotion recognition by pointing out emotions in everyday conversations and situations, and encouraging their children to do the same. One way to do this is by asking children about situations that bring up certain emotions (e.g., “How does hearing your favorite song make you feel?”) which allows them to understand that emotions are a part of everyday life and occur across multiple situations. Furthermore, children can learn about emotions even if the questions themselves do not refer to any person in particular. For example, asking children a general question like “Why are sharks scary?” helps them think through what contributes to something being “scary.”

In addition to allowing the child to reflect on why sharks may be scary to her in particular, this question helps her think about how something can be scary for different people in different ways. This again helps underscore a child’s perspective taking, by making her aware that not everyone feels the same way about similar things.

Similarly, parents can ask questions that allow children to practice altruism and empathy. For example, helping children recognize that a particular situation made someone sad (e.g., “why did his brother stealing his toy make Jacob sad?) and then asking children how they would react in a similar situation enables children to see that they can relate to others’ feelings. Asking children specific questions regarding what to do in certain situations or why we do certain things (“What do people do when they are cold? Why do we give people hugs when they are sad?”) also highlights to them how to recognize and understand others’ feelings and best ways to help. 

Furthermore, being empathic or altruistic isn’t always easy, and parents can help by engaging children in discussions regarding situations where being altruistic and feeling empathy is difficult (e.g. “when is it hard to share toys? Why?”) This will help children find better ways to be kind to others even when they may not be motivated to do so.

Understanding, recognizing, and responding to emotions are all critical components of emotional development and healthy interpersonal relationships. Making your child aware of emotions in herself and others and helping her practice these skills will help her become a more sensitive, caring, and thoughtful person. 

*Daphna Ram, Ph.D Psychology Cornell, utilizes her Developmental Psychology expertise on Povi.

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