I talk to lots of moms. At the gym, church, grocery store, Starbucks… and here’s what I notice. When moms talk about their babies their eyes sparkle with delight. They smile when I ask about them. And they sigh as they say things like, “I never stop worrying.” “I’m so tired, I never feel caught up on sleep.” “I’m so afraid I’m gonna mess him up.”
I remember those same feelings as a young parent. It’s natural – this new job is a huge responsibility! It’s physically draining and there are just so many emotions.
Children pick up on our emotions at an amazingly young age. Researchers have found that babies as young as 4 months can detect positive and negative emotions in our facial expressions and tone of voice. This ability continues to develop in the first year, and you may see that your baby shows preference for things that you respond positively to, through your face and voice. This ability to “read” you is very new however, and the process of learning to respond to others’ emotions continues throughout childhood (in fact, many grownups are still working on it!)
As baby gets more mobile and begins to explore the world, you’ll find that he’ll look back for reassurance, taking note of your facial expression, gestures, words and tone of voice. In other words, reading your emotional response to his actions to let him know if it’s safe to continue the adventure.
For example, you’re sitting on the living room floor with your baby, with toys strewn all around. He crawls away from you, towards the front door that’s slightly ajar. Once he gets to the door, he grabs the side and begins to open it further, then looks at you to see what you think. Is it okay, mom? Can I open it all the way? Can I crawl out onto the front porch? Are you going to follow me? Your face will tell him… with either a smile and nod that says, “Sure, daddy’s on the porch, you can go on out” or “No baby, come back away in here with me, away from the door”. He wants to know – are you happy that he’s exploring or not?
The ability to read your feelings pops up everywhere! Do you really dislike vegetables? Your baby will figure that out. In a study that looked at children’s responses to an adults’ expression of joy, sadness, fear, anger or disgust toward a food item, 18-month-old babies were more likely to give an adult food if she expressed sadness, as if she wanted some of it, and if the adult expressed disgust, the baby would push the food away. (Read about the study here.) Moral of the story? If you want a bite of baby’s cookie, give an exaggerated sad face and open your mouth wide. If you want your little one to eat vegetables, express joy and enthusiasm as you model eating them yourself!
This applies to every situation where we express emotion – which is pretty much all day every day.
Being aware of our own emotional state and making adjustments as needed is quite important, because little ones are affected by them. I don’t know about you, but I often have to give myself a strong talking to, to choose joy and gratitude when I’m feeling irritated and put out by others. Which doesn’t mean masking emotions or faking joy, it means doing what’s needed to change my feelings or simply feeling the sadness or irritation with the knowledge that it will pass.
When it comes to helping our children grow emotionally, we need to be authentic about our own emotions. This looks like appropriately communicating how we feel (tired, peaceful, upset, joyful, angry, etc.), In doing this, we are being authentic and giving baby the tools to identify, express and manage their own emotions, which can be a scary and overwhelming in the first few years of life.
Here are a few things to remember as you think about your baby’s emotional development…
- Acknowledge their feelings. “You are hungry and you have to wait for the bottle to warm. That’s frustrating and you feel hangry! I understand.” “You want mama to hold you but I’m… (fill in the blank). That’s disappointing. I will pick you up in 2 minutes when I’m done.”
- Honestly describe your own feelings, giving words to them and how you plan to cope. “We didn’t get much sleep last night did we baby? I feel tired today. I’m going to work hard to be happy even though I feel kinda grumpy this morning. Let’s listen to some fun music.”
- Allow your child to experience frustration. Even though our first response is to fix things for our child, the best way to develop tolerance for frustration is by experiencing and dealing with it in small, manageable amounts. For an 8-month-old, that looks like not coming to rescue when the ball rolls away. Let him figure out where it went and how to get it, even if it rolled under the couch. Be there at the ready, to help if needed after a few moments – but first give the opportunity to solve his own problem.
Do this… practice naming emotions as you go through your routines today. See how it helps both of you!
- “You’re smiling big this morning, you are rested and full of joy!”
- “You have a sad expression on your face. You’d rather not have a bath, I understand. Let’s make it better by playing a game with the water.”
- “I feel… (happy, sad, lonely, impatient, etc.) How do you feel, baby?”
Until next time,