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Babies Brains

Empathetic parenting

Kerstin Kramar

PGDipClinPsych, NZCCP

Empathetic parenting and emotional regulation

When you ask parents what is on their wish list for their new bundle of joy’s future, HAPPINESS is usually somewhere around top of the list.

We all want our children to have fulfilled lives, be happy in themselves, in what they do and in the world around them – this includes relationships and the wider community they spend their lives in. However, people have different ideas about the ingredients that go into this happiness cake for their children. Some may think it is money and the material goods that having money enables, the intelligence factor, ethnic background and sometimes the challenges or privileges that may come with that, the area you live in, the talents the child has, and the opportunities that one can provide the child for education and outside of school.

Life is full of opportunities and our children partly determine to what extent they can take advantage of. The research would say that our children achieving their potential can be reduced to two main factors: emotion regulation and quality of interpersonal relationships. Interestingly, the quality of relationships is significantly influenced by how well a child learns to regulate their emotions over time. So, I come to write about the important issue of emotion regulation.

Understanding emotion regulation

If we were to look up the definition of emotion regulation we would find a definition that reads something like: “Emotional regulation is a complex process that involves initiating, inhibiting, or modulating one’s state or behaviour in a given situation – for example, the subjective experience (feelings), cognitive responses (thoughts), emotion-related physiological responses (for example, heart rate or hormonal activity), and emotion-related behaviour (bodily actions or expressions)”.

Simply put, when it comes to children, it is their ability to handle themselves age appropriately when they experience a range of feelings, positive as well as challenging ones. They range from exuberant excitement or happiness to deepest sadness, confusion, or being scared, while feeling frustrated is somewhere in the middle. Let’s focus on what we as adults can do to support our children to achieve emotion regulation. The general process of emotional regulation is one that starts with someone else regulating things for the child, which then moves to co-regulation, and eventually to self-regulation.

First steps

Age 0–18 months

In this first stage of life it is all about the adults recognising the child’s needs and responding appropriately to meet those needs. It is all about “other regulation” at this stage – the only self-regulation going on here is an automatic cry out for help which babies are programmed to do. There is a lot of figuring out going on, which is a process called attunement. It is like fine-tuning your sensors to figure out whether the cry means hungry, tired, nappy change, uncomfortable clothes, tummy ache, or possibly overstimulation.

Biologically we are programmed to master this fine-tuning and the baby helps us with that in the bonding process. The important part in this process is that babies are responded to consistently to have their needs met. It gives baby the message that “when I cry this way (I’m hungry) then I get responded to that way (I’m fed) and that makes me feel so much better.”

Later this translates into “I feel hungry, so I need to get myself a banana or ask for one, and that will make me feel better” which is then self-regulation. Through our fine-tuning, babies learn to identify their feelings and how to respond to them appropriately. As babies grow up, it is important to put words to our observations, which will help a toddler then put words to their felt experience.

This means once they have their own words, they can say what they need in order to regulate themselves. Practically this looks like a lot of “thinking aloud” and reflecting this to an infant and toddler – “Oh look, you’re rubbing your eyes, you are getting tired; let’s have a bath, put our PJs on and off into bed.”

Second steps

18 months onwards

Once you find yourself saying “no” quite a bit, it is likely your child has progressed to the “terrific twos”. CONGRATULATIONS. I strongly believe that this stage is to be welcomed with massive celebrating – bells, whistles, and fireworks. It means that your toddler has learnt cause and effect to some extent, that the world is a predictable and trustworthy place, that others are reliable, and that instead of worrying about who to trust and how to have their needs met, they can focus on exploring the world and learning as much as possible – pretty much until they drop to sleep.

During this stage, identifying your child’s emotions, reflecting them to your child, and empathising with them are all important.

A common childhood scene could look something like this: your two-year-old smacks another child because they took the toy your child was looking at from a distance. They then grabbed the toy while the other child was busy crying. In this type of situation, in order to foster emotional regulation, you need to address your child’s ability to manage frustration. Assuming the hurt child is taken care off, it will be important to get onto the same level with the child who smacked and calmly talk with them. As a first step, you could describe the situation factually – “I saw you playing with the blocks and looking at the car over there; then Carlos took that car to play a game.”

Then reflect your observation of your child’s feelings and connect them to their actions – “I could see you got really angry that he had taken the car that you wanted. You were frustrated, and you smacked him to get the car.” It is really important to acknowledge the feelings of your child before asking them to focus on how the other child felt about being smacked and having the toy snatched off them. Because after all this child was hurting too – how dare his little friend take the toy he was looking at!

Children – and even adults – go by the premise “I will care about the other, when the other cares for me.”

In the third stage, you focus on repairing the damage by helping your child to develop empathy for the one who was hurt and find ways to make them feel better. I would not suggest you jump to, “You have to say sorry to Carlos or otherwise you won’t play with any of these toys until you do.”

Instead invite your child to feel for the playmate – “Oh look at Carlos, he has tears running down his cheeks and he looks really sad because when you smacked him he got hurt. Smacking is not ok, let’s use our words when we want something.” Then invite him to come up with ideas of what we could do to make everyone feel better.

This will only work if we remember that both children were hurt in some way – “Let’s see what we can do to make Carlos feel better … maybe Carlos can tell us …. Ok, let’s get him an ice pack, I will open the door and you can take it out and give it to him.” Once this process is complete, then you can focus on the more rational talk about sharing and turn-taking. In this stage, it is about the child’s ability to learn to identify their emotions, to express them appropriately, and to have their needs met appropriately. They need your help to connect the dots, which is called co-regulation. We can see how the process illustrated above fosters good relationships.

It is a process many of us as parents still have to learn – because after all, hardly anyone was raised that way. However, emotional regulation is more important then ever in a world that is highly digital and highly interconnected. So on top of my wishlist for parents of little bubs and tots would definitely be to teach their children emotional regulation through empathic parenting.

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