Dear Dr. Debbie,
My son is 6 years old and does well in school. I wonder, though, if he couldn’t do better with managing his emotions and resolving conflicts with others. He puts up a fuss when I have to nag him to let the dog out. Also, I would think he’d be used to the fact that his 2-year-old brother can’t wait patiently for a turn. Are these unrealistic expectations given his age? It’s exasperating at times to have to deal with selfishness and whining with someone his age. Should I just patiently wait for him to mature or are there things I can do to help him get better?
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The abilities of emotional control and conflict resolution are still developing in a 6-year-old. Time will allow for continued brain development along with the life lessons that come from interacting with others. Below are key components of “emotional intelligence” along with suggestions for guiding children towards achieving them. Beyond normal maturation, the development of emotional intelligence depends on a child’s guidance in: self-awareness, self-control, awareness of others’ emotions and appropriate interactions. But it also depends on a normal timetable of growth.
A 2-year-old only wants what his playmate has. He is new at identifying with the other child as being like him. Two 3-year-olds will repeatedly annoy one another. Each is learning how his actions affect the emotions of the other. Around age 4 you’ll hear, “She’s mad at me. Will she still invite me to her party?” as a child begins to think about what others may be thinking of him. At age 5, a child’s dealings with others show even more sensitivity as the children work cooperatively on a group venture. By age 7, he can more readily take another’s point of view, and can often put his own needs aside to meet those of the other person.
Emotional intelligence begins with the awareness of one’s own feelings. Give names to your son’s emotional states and help him to recognize what’s happening inside his mind and in his body. Provide verbal labels — happy/sad/angry/frightened — and point out how his body changes because of his emotions such as his breathing, muscle tension, voice volume, body speed, facial expression and presence of tears. One day he’ll associate an emotion with “butterflies in my stomach” or “a lump in my throat.” Until then, you should tell him what you see in him.
For example, excitement may make him move faster — “You’re so excited that Grandpa invited you to sleep over! Look how fast you packed your bag.” Guide him in the positive expression of his emotion. “Let’s call Grandpa so you can tell him about the games you’re bringing.” Otherwise, your excited child may tear around the house until it’s time to go.
When he’s upset, such as when his little brother spills the paint on his work in progress, identify the emotion he’s experiencing, but also help him to manage the anger constructively. “The paint covered your picture! That makes you angry. You were working hard on it. Let’s clean up the mess and get your brother some markers to use. Hold your picture in your head so you can make it again.” Take note of his physical state, namely the tight muscles, and redirect the tension (away from clobbering the little brother) to wiping up the paint.
A related aspect of self-awareness and taking appropriate action is his ability to figure out what he wants. Whenever possible, give free reign to letting him make his own choices. Let him evaluate the outcome himself. If he’s picked several toys to play with in the bathtub, including a few with glued on stickers, you can sympathize with him when the stickers come loose, but don’t criticize his decision. That’s for him to do for himself. A bad outcome is a good lesson.
With continued practice, he’ll have enhanced decision making skills that will steer his future actions.
There are certainly personality differences in how strongly one feels and expresses emotions, however, parents and other caregivers can support the development of emotional control for any child. The adults set standards and provide models for putting feelings into words, staying calm despite frustrations and finding constructive solutions to conflicts.
The word “guidance” implies leading a child to follow a consistent set of rules regarding how to express emotions and treat others by the steady example and enforcement by the adults. The more calm and consistent the adults are, the faster the child will learn the rules.
Empathy and Action
After a good start with emotional awareness in himself, help your son to see emotions in others. People-watching opportunities arise in public places and on TV. Talk about what someone may be feeling and why. “That baby on the swing loves it when her daddy tickles her feet. What a giggle!”
Animals also provide opportunities for valuable observations. Point out the bristling hair on the back of the dog’s neck when he hears a neighbor’s dog bark. “Chester’s afraid of that dog. See his neck hair standing up?” Your son can relate to Chester’s feelings, having experienced that prickling feeling himself anticipating a shot at the doctor’s office.
When we know how someone else feels, we can act accordingly. Show your son how to reassure the dog (or his brother) with words and touch. Help him to do the right thing by his playmates, too. If his friend is sad because his dad is away on a business trip, your son can follow your example to ask him questions about his dad. “I wonder what he’s doing in Nebraska. What kind of work does your dad do?” If your son doesn’t pick up on how to converse with his friend about his missed dad, you can continue for him. Follow up with, “Your friend liked talking about his father. I think it makes him feel closer to him while he’s away.”
There is a learning process in caring for others — to read the emotional need and respond appropriately. Your child takes note when you model for him how to guess what someone may be feeling and how to try to address a need.
Give your child a good foundation in emotional intelligence with empathic attention to his emotions and the emotions of others.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.