Emotional Regulation and Empathy
Children who manage emotion well have an easier time getting along with their peers (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). The process of learning to manage feelings is a complicated one that starts as soon as a baby looks into her parents’ eyes and begins to establish an attachment relationship. Infants can’t regulate their own internal states and emotions; they depend on their caregivers to decipher the clues they provide and respond with the help they need (Cicchetti, Ganiban, and Barnett, 1991). That is, caregivers act as a kind of external arm of the baby’s own internal regulatory system, gradually handing over control as the baby internalizes what they’ve taught her and can take over managing her emotions herself. Temperament definitely plays a role here—a child who feels everything intensely may find this process much more difficult (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000).
The more sensitive and responsive the caregiver is to the baby’s signals (particularly to negative feelings such as pain, fear, and anger), the better at regulating her own emotions the child will eventually become. If her primary caregiver is unpredictable, unavailable, or rejecting, the child learns ways to protect herself and manage her feelings that may not work effectively outside the family (Greenberg et al., 1997). As well as helping her to regulate her emotions, the child’s attachment relationship with her primary caregiver becomes a working model for future relationships and provides the basis for her feelings of self-worth (Bowlby, 1969/1982).
Empathy, which is the ability to understand what others are feeling and to put oneself in their shoes, begins to develop by the age of 2, when a child is likely to try to console her crying brother by patting him or bringing him blankets, drinks, toys—anything that she associates with relieving her own pain (Dunn and Brown, 1991). In The Scientist in the Crib, Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, describes how her son, then almost 2 years old, found her in tears after a particularly discouraging day at work. In a valiant attempt to fix whatever ailed her, he rushed to the bathroom and returned with a large box of Band-Aids, which he plastered all over her (Gopnik et al., 2001).
As children realize that not everyone feels what they feel and that different people can have different feelings, they can learn to anticipate how others might feel and to respond appropriately to someone in distress. The ability to empathize with others is also linked to attachment (Karen, 1998). A child with a secure relationship to her primary caregiver isn’t as frightened by the strong emotions of other people and is much more prepared to put herself in their place.
Being able to look at a situation from another’s perspective makes a considerable difference in the way children perceive the world, and it’s crucial when it comes to controlling aggressive behavior (Beland, 1996; Cartledge and Milburn, 1995). Children who bully and other children with challenging behavior find it hard to see things from someone else’s point of view (Webster-Stratton and Herbert, 1994), and children who’ve been abused or who’ve witnessed abuse often close down their empathic responses in an attempt to cope (Beland, 1996).
Conversely, children who can imagine another’s feelings are less inclined to act aggressively. When they can identify and sympathize with a peer, they’re more likely to help her and less likely to become angry or misinterpret events and intentions (Beland, 1996; Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998). They can anticipate the effect of their words and actions and understand that if they push or tease, someone will get hurt. They make better decisions (Greenberg and Kusche, 1998), and they’re more likely to take others’ feelings into account when they’re trying to solve problems, increasing the chances that the solutions they reach will satisfy everyone (Ianotti, 1985).
But before children can tune into other people’s feelings, they have to be able to understand their own. Talking about feelings—and encouraging children to talk about them—helps them learn to differentiate and label what they feel (Dunn and Brown, 1991). In calm times, you can play games, read books, and do puppet plays about feelings; and any time that feelings arise in the classroom, be sure to label and discuss them (“You feel sad because your friends are leaving you out,” “You and Leo look very excited about that book”). You can also help children figure out which situations may provoke which feelings (“When you take away the bike, that makes Sophia feel angry”). It also helps to talk about how different people may have different feelings about the same situation (Juan may be thrilled at the top of the big slide, but Ines might be scared). Pretend play, observing others, asking questions, being coached through difficult situations, and strategies such as self-talk also help children to learn about and control their feelings (Dunn and Brown, 1991).
The best tool you have for helping a child regulate her emotions is your relationship. When you listen and respond empathically to her strong emotions, you comfort the child and at the same time give her the sense that her feelings can be controlled (Karen, 1998). You also convey this message by expressing your own feelings directly: She learns it’s all right to have and express emotions and that emotions are manageable. If she knows you’ll always be there when she needs you, she may eventually feel secure and confident enough to deal with her own difficult feelings and have enough energy left over to think about what others are feeling (Karen, 1998).
When it comes to regulating and displaying emotion, different cultures have different beliefs and values. In the individualistic European American culture, children are encouraged to express their feelings. But in collective cultures, such as those of Japan and China, where the harmony of the group takes precedence, people keep their feelings to themselves so that they won’t hurt others (Chan, 1998).
When children cross from one culture to another to go to child care or school, they may find it hard to switch their emotional mode (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000).
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