The Whole Child
Dealing with Feelings:
Emotional Health
abc's of child development
For parents
for early care providers

Video Clip

requires Real player
( transcript )

Reading List
Reading List

Also of interest

Parents Forum
Web Sites

It takes a lot of patience combined with good judgment and warm, nurturing relationships to raise emotionally healthy children. But no matter what we do, children are going to feel sad, afraid, anxious and angry from time to time. In this unit, our challenge is to learn how to help children cope with their feelings and express them in socially acceptable ways that don't harm others and are appropriate to the child's age and abilities.

Erikson's Stages of Emotional Development
Teachers can foster mental health in young children by providing many opportunities for healthy emotional attitudes to develop. Dr. Erik Erikson has made a significant contribution to our understanding of those basic attitudes. He believed that during the life span, a person passes through a series of stages of emotional development when basic attitudes are formed. Three of these stages are passed through in early childhood:

  • trust vs. mistrust
  • autonomy vs. shame and doubt
  • initiative vs. guilt

    In the stage of trust vs. mistrust, the baby learns that other people can be depended on and that she can depend on herself. This development of trust is deeply related to the quality of care. It is vital that the basic climate of the center encourages the establishment of trust between everyone who is part of that community.
            In our society, the attitudes of autonomy vs. shame and doubt are formed during the same period in which toilet learning takes place. This fundamental exercise in self-assertion and control is associated with the child's drive to become independent and to express this independence by making choices and decisions. Erikson said that children who are deprived of the opportunity to establish independence and autonomy may become oppressed with feelings of shame and self-doubt, which later result in losing self-esteem and being defiant. The desirable way to handle this strong need for choice and self-assertion is to provide an environment at home and school that makes many opportunities available for the child to do for herself and make decisions.
            In the stage of initiative vs. guilt, around the age of 4 or 5, the child becomes more interested in reaching out to the world around him, doing things and being part of the group. At this stage, children want to think things up and try them out; they are interested in the effect their actions have on other people; they formulate concepts of appropriate sex roles; they enjoy imaginative play; and they become avid seekers of information about the world around them. To feel emotionally satisfied, a child of this age must be allowed to explore, to act and to do.

    Choices and Limits
    It takes a lot of patience to maintain limits when necessary and independence when that's possible. It's a balancing act of avoiding confrontations when you can, insisting on doing things your way when necessary and giving the child as many choices as possible. We just have to remind ourselves that this drive toward independence and self-assertion is an important stage of emotional development.
            There are many choices that can be offered but, remember, these are limited choices. Not "do you want to put on a sweater?" but "which sweater?" Not "do you want to have snack?" but "where do you want to sit for snack?" This is why self-selection of activities is such a valuable part of the preschool day. When children are expected to choose for themselves what they want to do, they have endless opportunities for making decisions.
            What happens when we create a climate that minimizes or takes away the chance for children to make decisions? In a spirited child, this can lead to struggle after struggle. In less spirited ones, it can produce feelings of inadequacy and loss of self-confidence. By allowing children to make their own choices and decisions and be responsible for their own outcomes, we are setting the framework for strong, emotionally healthy lives.
            But not everything is a choice. Sometimes the answer is "no." Sometimes we have to wait for what we want and sometimes we don't ever get what we want. Learning how to cope with disappointments, delays and setbacks is also a critical part of the development of a healthy, balanced mental attitude. But reducing the level and frequency of disappointments and frustrations can help avoid unnecessary battles.

    Feel What You Want, Control What You Do
    One of the most valuable skills we can teach children is how to express strong emotions without hurting themselves, others or damaging property. What we want our children to learn is: feel what you want, but control what you do. Begin by communicating with the child in a non-judgmental way, showing her you understand how she feels. Perhaps she's angry or sad because someone won't let her play or perhaps she wants something so badly, she can't wait another minute for it. Whatever the cause, the first thing to do is to put those feelings into words for her. Encourage the child to say the feelings out loud and tell the other person how she feels. If the child's too young or inexperienced to know what to say, model a simple sentence for her to copy. Finally, do whatever else is necessary to resolve the situation.
            Of course, adults lose their temper and must learn to control their anger. The important thing to remember is that the same rule applies: feel what you want, but control what you do. You can't fool children by denying you are upset or angry or frightened. It's better to simply admit it as calmly as possible.

    Hallmarks of Emotional Health
    Let's look at some signs of emotional health in children. First of all, is the child working on emotional tasks that are appropriate for his age or ability? For example, if he's two and a half, is he asserting himself from time to time?
            Is the child able to separate from her family without undue stress and form an attachment with at least one other adult at school? Of course, comfortable separation doesn't happen overnight and it tends to be harder for younger children or children who are developmentally delayed.
            Is the child learning to conform to routines at school without undue fuss? Keep in mind, a certain amount of testing, mostly by 4 year olds and balkiness, mostly by 2 year olds, is to be expected.
            Is the child able to involve herself deeply in play? Play is not only the work of children, it's the greatest health promoter and vehicle for learning that's available to them.
            Can the child settle down and concentrate? Being able to focus attention on something that interests a youngster is an indicator that he is capable of learning.
            Finally, does the child have access to the full range of her feelings and is she learning to deal with them in an age-appropriate way? This is one of the most important indicators of emotional health because then the child is aware of all her feelings and can express them without harming herself or others.
            When children seem to have special difficulties, we need to remember we don't have to solve every emotional problem by ourselves. When feeling puzzled, get some help. Talk to colleagues or to outside professionals and get the family involved, making certain they realize you aren't blaming them for the child's difficulties.

  • back to the top
    The Whole Child     ABCs of Child Development     For Early Care Providers     For Early Care Providers