Has your child ever tested boundaries? Has your child ever walked away from you, and out of the corner of your eye, you still see that they are viewing to see if your are in eye sight. Has your child ever bolted from your vision, in a store, a public place, or worse yet, near a busy street. Unfortunately, this was the scenario my wife and I faced with our youngest this week. While the matter may seem highly personal, there is also a collective lesson to learn about how to help children handle and express the difficult emotions that growing up brings to the forefront.

It was once believed that children are a blank slate. While this is true in the sense that they have no experience from which to determine their course early on in life, it also has false pretenses. The false pretenses center on the fact that our physiological and psychological development unfold with bio-psychosocial certainty, despite the storylines a child is systemically exposed to during their young and formative years.

While our biological and psychological development occurs from both nurture and nature, genetics and the environment, no storyline is complete, especially when it relates to the experiences that will make up a child’s life. However, the means by which our physiology, neurobiology, bio-chemistry, psychology, and spirituality develop are structured by both internal and external forces that combine to make up the personality we adapt. This stands as the cornerstone of our emergent ego, and dictates not only the person we become, but also the traits we present to the world. In essence, we have a self (ego), which we create to interact with the environment, and a supra ordinate Self (superego) which stores the collective and social aspects of our genetic and psychological heritage. These entities, although developing throughout the lifespan, form the paradox from which emotional identification and therefore emotional regulation emerge within the growing child. These psychological constructs also form the foundation of healthy and/or unhealthy bio-psycho-social development.

Yesterday, my child ran from my wife. It scared us to the core. But there was a lesson to learn from this incident. She asked me, “what makes children run like that?” While I am emotionally invested as a father, I had to step back from that role for a moment, and put on my professional hat, and examine the tenants of childhood development, especially as it relates to emotional identification, reaction, and regulation skills. My child ran simply because of fight or flight.

Every child tests boundaries. It is part of their natural progression to become individuated. However, this progression is also relative to social norms. It is not uncommon for a toddler to go to the next house or across the yard before they turn back to make sure that mom or dad are there. However, if you live in a dense forest, this same distance can be a scary proposition for a parent to swallow. In the case of an individuating teenager, if a house or two separation is the extent of their environmental exploration, a clear problem. In my son’s case, he ran to the end of the block and turned the corner.

Oh my! What dangers were at hand? Would he be safe? My heart sank, as a plethora of anxiety provoking fears entered the mind.  If a teenager did this, most would care less, as they have lived experience behind themselves to handle many of the dangers that life can and will throw at them. However, the story was very different as it related to my developing 5 year-old.

What are we to do when a child, because of whatever negative emotion has arisen, decides to take flight from and/or fight against the source of that emotional conflict? This is what my wife asked me as we talked that night. Let us explore:

It is imperative to help children understand their emotional state. Below are seven ways you can help a child understand, name, contain, and eventually navigate the unwanted consequences emotions can cause in our day to day life.

  1. Fight, Flight, or Freeze – When negative emotions arise, your child has three choices. These are built into our genetic lineage, are part of the drives that keep us alive, and are as common in animals as they are in people. Fight, Flight, or Freeze. The choice is yours. While fight may get you in trouble, flight often is a great choice for children who fear aspects of getting into trouble, or even worse, hampering their parents opinion about their holiness. While my child chose to fly instead of get in trouble, he nevertheless got in more trouble due to the poor choice he made. While this choice did not work out for him, it opened a door for him to examine the options he had, which secondarily arose only after the situation was contained.
  2. Containment – When a young child undergoes emotional states, it is an undercurrent to be reckoned with. Their emotions are naturally larger than their little bodies can handle, mostly due to their lack of experience in identifying and and learning effective ways to manage their emotional state. Let’s face it, when the victim in the horror movie is running from the masked man chasing them with a chainsaw, you will be hard pressed to ask them a question, let alone reason with them about how they feel. While this may be an absurd comparison, the emotions of toddlers and young children are at a heightened state of awareness, and need to be contained not only for their personal safety, but also as a means to help them learn effective calming strategies to return to a state where reasoning can take place. It is our job as parents to teach children how to identify and contain emotions. Simple practices such as time outs, deep breathing, progressive relaxation are effective ways to help your child learn self regulatory skills. In the worst case scenario, physical containment may become necessary to help a navigate to tumultuous currents associated with more negative emotional states.
  3. Direct the Neural Pathway – Once the emotions are contained and the child has reached a state of calm, then engage them to direct their behaviors. In this step, there is no room for negotiation. There is only directions that are followed by immediate consequences. Your child must know you mean business. For myself, I showed my son the other side of what life would be like if he ran away. We drove and looked at homelessness first hand, and saw how poverty and despair can affect children who have no home. While this presented as an aspect of negative reinforcement for the negative behavior of running from my wife, it was conducted from a sense of love and compassion towards my son. Showing my son this lesson was not meant to be mean or to put us on a higher rung on the social ladder. I wanted him to understand the love he receives at home is not universal, and that some people have it much worse off than he does. Only time will tell if the lesson stuck; however, its outcome can be measured specifically by the amelioration of the adverse behaviors we wanted to mold through the use of the negative reinforcement.
  4. Reinforce the Neural Pathway – By exposing my son to another scenario he had never considered, he now has two factors by which to weigh a decision. This was not available to him just hours prior. While he stated that he was angry, he did not have any other natural paths to engage other than fight, flight, or freeze. Now he has options, due primarily to being exposed to, learning from, and reinforcement of an adverse condition he did not expect and/or know anything about. Now he has the choice to think before he acts, and make an informed decision based on what he has been exposed to in life.
  5. Explore the Paradox – The root of my son’s self-expressed problem was anger. It caused him to run rather than fight. By running, he got himself in much more trouble than he would have if he just froze and chose to give himself a self-directed time out. However, he made a wrong decision, and it got him into trouble. In this scenario, we explored other options he could have used instead of running. While he initially gave the prototypical answer a child would (I don’t know), when pressed, he came up with two great alternatives. Trust me, never give into “I don’t know,” it is the lazy person’s out for taking responsibility for their actions. This will work with children over the age of 5, as some degree of autonomy is necessary to acquire the cognitive skills that surrounds critical thought. However, I pressed with my son, and acquired the answer I sought. I forced him to solve his own problem, and he didn’t let me down, even though it took a little encouragement and talking with him from a five-year old perspective.
  6. Enact the Consequence: Notice I said enact, not give the consequence. Children must learn to accept accountability for their actions. By giving a consequence, they learn that positive and negative results are external factors to be given, and not necessarily worked through at the interpersonal level and or earned. While it is imperative that you have some consequences in mind, have your child give themselves their own consequence. Many times, it will be more harsh than what you originally thought; and if it is not, you still have a plethora of consequences you can fall back on. This teaches them intrinsic responsibility for their actions, and helps them to develop an internal locus of control.
  7. Reinforce the Good – lastly, when your child does good, let him earn time away from his consequence. Not only does this positively reinforce positive behaviors, this also shows that you can be fair. Furthermore, your child will begin to pick up that his or her good behaviors are noticed.

While this list is not exhaustive, it provides a basis from which you can help your child to begin learning ways to handle situational distress. If you have others, or stories regarding ways you have helped your children learn, adapt, and flourish in dealing with their emotional state, I would love to hear. Thank-you, and until next time, I wish you to Advance Confidently in the Direction of Your Dreams.

Dr. Tom

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