When the child is about three, his emotions begin to come into focus: love and fear,
sadness and joy, disappointment and excitement, enthusiasm and reluctance, happiness and
anger, caring and hate. Of course, infants have emotions too. For the most part, though, an
infant's emotions are elementary: fear and frustration, well-being and discomfort, pleasure and
pain. During the period from three to six, the child's emotions develop rapidly. The preschooler is
confronted by his emotions in new ways and in novel situations. As parenting adults, we help
him learn to experience and express emotions. We watch his frustration and anger become
temper tantrums and pouting, his excitement and enthusiasm express themselves through
occasionally inappropriate and apparently uncontrolled behavior, his bad dreams become
terrifying nightmares, small reactions become real fears, disappointment becomes devastation.
The child becomes emotionally vulnerable and his feelings can easily be hurt. Sharing with love
comes up against the reality of a sometimes hurting and nonaccepting world.
As the preschooler becomes a grade schooler, the circle of his emotional world expands.
Parents and parenting adults gradually fill a smaller portion of that emotional world as other
people and events begin to take up an increasingly larger proportion. The grade schooler is
confronted by a multiplying set of emotional experiences and opportunities: success and failure,
competition, acceptance and rejection, approval and disapproval from a widening variety of
people, and the sometimes exhilarating and sometimes harsh reality of abilities and inabilities.
As the grade schooler becomes an adolescent, emotional experiences grow increasingly
more complex. The emotional pull between home and friends becomes a central issue of life. In
addition, sexuality becomes an emotionally laden delight and dilemma. The adolescent has
become a physical/emotional being. Here, we will focus on some of the more important
emotional issues and problems with which parenting adults have to deal.
CHILDREN AND FEAR:
Other than the possibly natural fears of falling and of unpredictably loud noises, children
seem to have no inborn fears. Almost all fears are learned. Why, for instance, are some children
afraid of the dark? A small child is placed in the crib. She cries and seems afraid. The parent
turns out the light and shuts the door. The child's reaction intensifies. The parent assumes this is a
result of turning out the light and shutting the door. But the child's reaction is a combination of
the parent's leaving the room and the child's being left in the dark. If the parent goes back in the
room, turns on a night light, and consoles her, the child settles down to go to sleep. If the night
light is turned off, the fear reaction begins again. The parent turns the light back on and consoles
the child somewhat until she falls asleep or nearly asleep. The parent decides that the child does
not like to be in the dark and leaves the night light on. Over time, then, the child gets used to
sleeping with the light on; this becomes a fear of the dark.
Had the parents merely gone back and consoled the child until she settled down and
started to go to sleep, and continued to rock or talk softly to the child after the light was off,
whether the light was on or off would have never become an issue. From the child's perspective,
though, why would the parent make an issue of whether the light was on or off if there were
really nothing to be afraid of? If the parent thinks it will help to leave the light on, there must be
something about the darkness to fear. Quite literally, the parent has taught the child to be afraid
of the dark.
FEAR OF THUNDER, SNAKES, AND SPIDERS:
An infant or toddler will tend to react to the loudness of thunder. If thunder and lightning
are a little frightening to the parent, this will be communicated to the child. If, however, the
parent can let the child know that thunder is natural, can talk about the lightning and be positive
about the storm, the child will gradually learn to enjoy storms. An unusually loud thunderclap
may still be startling, but there will be no fear of storms. Children who are afraid of storms have
learned this fear from adults who are also afraid of storms. The same learning goes on with the
fear of snakes and spiders. We have learned the fears from adults when we were young.
Of course, a fear of snakes is something that we probably want our children to develop.
After children get a little older, it may be useful to teach them to differentiate between harmful
snakes and unharmful snakes. The same rationale holds for spiders. Interestingly, a negative or
fear reaction to spiders will be helpful when children grow up and need to keep living areas
clean. Cobwebs are a real problem and our fear of spiders partly makes us so insistent that
cobwebs be cleaned up. We teach our children to be a little afraid of germs, not to get dirt in their
mouths, and to get clean after getting dirty. This is helpful in much the same way that a fear of
spiders and the association with cobwebs is helpful.
Thus, we see that almost all fears are taught. Some fears are helpful in terms of
self-protection and future adjustment. Other fears, however, are quite debilitating. In fact, some
people become so afraid that they will not go out of their house, will not talk with others, cannot
tolerate meeting strangers, keep themselves and their living areas antiseptically clean, or are
afraid of dogs.
Although most fears are learned, they are not necessarily taught to children by parents.
For example, a young girl developed a fear of flying birds in a somewhat unusual way. She was
playing in the yard one day and approached a baby bird lying on the ground. Just as she got to the
baby bird, the mother bird swooped down to protect the baby. Although the mother bird did not
attack her, the girl thought the bird was going to. She became terrified and ran into the house.
Her mother told her that we should leave baby birds alone since mother birds are sometimes
quite protective, and because we might injure the baby bird. The terror had been so intense that
the girl unconsciously generalized the fear to all flying birds. Although she now knows rationally
that it is extremely unlikely a flying bird will hurt her, the fear remains. Many fears are learned
through such life experiences.
In addition to fears learned through identification with the fears of adults, through direct
teaching by adults, and through unusual life situations, fears arise when children confuse
possibility with probability. The idea may be best understood through an example.
The parents of a seven-year-old notice that he is developing an unreasonable fear of
tornadoes. He asks a lot of questions about tornadoes, and becomes apprehensive every time
there is a storm or forecasts of a storm. At school, there have been discussions about tornadoes,
other children have talked about tornadoes they have presumably heard of, and there have been
tornado alerts and drills. All of this has raised in the child's mind the possibility of being
involved in a tornado and being hurt or killed as a result of one. For the child, the fear of
tornadoes is very real. And it is possible that the child will be involved in a tornado. The
probability of this happening, though, is extremely low. His fear comes from confusing
possibility with probability. Here are other examples: A small child reacts intensely when left
with the baby-sitter. Is the child afraid of the baby-sitter? Maybe a little. More than that, she is
afraid her parents will abandon her. The possibility of being abandoned and the possibility of
being harmed by the baby-sitter are untempered by the probability of either event. Yes, an
occasional child is attacked by a dog, sometimes one or both parents are killed in accidents, some
people do go to the hospital and die, occasionally physicians do things to children that are
extremely painful, airplanes do sometimes crash, sometimes houses do burn down or are
destroyed by tornadoes, and so on. Life is full of possible danger and harm. We all know this, but
most of us adults go through life giving little thought to possible harms and dangers since we
know that the probability of the worst happening is extremely low. Our fears are tempered by our
judgment of probability. As children grow, possible harm and possible disaster gradually come
under the influence of probability determinations.
How do we as parents help our children learn this distinction? First, they will learn a lot
about probability all by themselves, through life experience. Second, occasionally we talk
directly with them about the idea of probability. For young children, of course, it is very
important not to confuse them or give explanations beyond their ability to understand. For
example, our preschooler asks if we are going to crash when we are driving on a snowy day. Do
we explain to the child that the probability of wrecking is fairly low although the possibility of
crashing does exist? No, we simply tell the child that we are not going to wreck and that
everything is going to be fine. What if we do wreck? Well, that is one of those things we will
have to deal with when it happens. Similarly, a child asks us if lightning is going to hit the house
and burn it down. We say, 'No. There is no reason to worry.' Children learn that we are not
always right, but they also learn that things usually turn out the way we say they will.
To summarize about the development of fear: Few fears are innate. Almost all fears are
learned. Many are picked up from parents who are afraid. Some fears are taught unintentionally
through the behavior of adults. Some fears are learned through negative life experiences. Most
fears involve a truly unconscious equating of possibility with probability. Fear is truly one of the
most difficult issues confronted by parents. Helping children deal with fear in a healthy way is
one of the most frequently mishandled parent/child issues.
THE TEA PARTY
No one came to the tea party. No one ever comes. I don't know why they won't come. I go
to their parties and am nice to them. I play their games, eat their cookies, and drink their fruit
punch, talk to them, laugh and have fun, and even take them presents sometimes. I always go to
their parties. They won't come to mine but I can make them come.
Hi, Cindy! Oh, you brought me a present. The package is so pretty. Wonder what's in it.
No, don't tell me. Yes. No, just put it on the table with the others. Wow! It's so much fun. See,
Cathy is already here. Do you want some punch and cookies? Melissa and the others will be here
in a little while. I haven't made them. Oh no, I mean they aren't here yet; but they'll be here in a
little while. Let's all play a game; we'll have so much fun.
No, I can't talk to you now. I know you're in charge, but please, not now, they'll notice.
They can't find out, please don't let them find out.
The spots are talking, they look a little like saucers, but they are fuzzy and I can sort of
see through them. I know they've always been there. They are what's real and they make me talk
and do things. Wonder if they control each other of if one of them is the hot spot and controls the
rest? Hot spot, dot dot rot, rot spot. Wonder if spots rot? He's got the hot spot rot. That's funny.
Wow! That's funny. Why can't I stop laughing. No, please God. That's awful. Maybe I'm a spot.
Oh, please help. I don't want to be a spot. I'm not a spot. I'm me and that's that.
Oh no, I'm fine, Cindy. What's happening? She thinks I look strange. No, maybe I'm just a
little dizzy, Cindy. Don't you get dizzy sometimes and feel funny? Maybe I should make her
dizzy. What if she doesn't believe me?
You're hurting me. Please, my head. Please quit squeezing my head. But I don't want to
be Mother. I want to be at the tea party and play with the other little girls. It's your turn, Cathy.
No, you're using your hands. You can only touch the balloon with your nose. It's not a silly game.
Well, maybe, yes it's a silly game. Why doesn't she want to play? I'll make her play. That's okay,
Cathy. No, please don't. It's not time to go yet. I haven't opened my presents yet and there are still
some more cookies. Do you want some more punch? My Mommy made this special. See, it's
yellow. Mommy says yellow is happy. Why don't they want to stay? Parties are fun. Why aren't
we having fun.
Where's Daddy? Is the tree house really mine, all mine? Just for me and no one else can
come up unless I want them to. It's fun walking with you, Daddy. We walk and talk and listen to
the noises and sing and make funny sounds and I can almost walk faster than you. I know you're
just pretending not to be able to walk very fast. But it's my secret. I like for you to tease and have
fun and play and make dreams with me. What does it mean to make dreams, Daddy? Yes I want
to go for a walk and make dreams. It's a lot of fun but what does it mean to make dreams,
Don't go, please don't go. Let's see, we could all play with my toys in my room. They're
all so clean and pretty and just where they are supposed to be. Why don't Cindy and Cathy like
my toys? Where are the other girls? Oh, I forgot - I forgot to make them come. Cindy, no, please,
you'll get it dirty. We don't play with them on the floor. Just one at a time, it needs to be back
where it's supposed to be before you touch something else. If they come now it would seem
funny. I hope Cindy and Cathy don't find out. Why did I let them come in here? Why are they
playing with my toys? They have to go now. No, I don't want them to go. If they would just be
nice, everything would be okay.
I hear you, Cindy, but I can't find you. Where are you? Where's Cathy? You're not
supposed to leave yet. I'll make you - no, I mean - please. Please come back. I can hear you but
where are you. My toys, everything's a mess. How did everything get on the floor? There's
nothing on the shelves. It's torn. How did it get torn? Everything's broken. Please don't be angry,
Mommy. Mommy will be mad and yell at me. Please don't yell at me, Mommy. I don't want to be
Mommy. Please don't make me be Mommy. Everything's ruined, it's all a mess. I hear you,
Cindy. Where are you? Where's Cathy? No, get away from me. You're a spot. You're a spot.
You're not Cindy. Quit talking to me. No, they're not here. I didn't make them come. You're all
spots. You're not real. I'm real. No, I'm a spot. No, I'm real. The spots are talking; go away. I am
making you go away.
I'm screaming. What's happening? It feels like I'm screaming. The spots are all turning
yellow and getting closer together. The sky is so black. Where are the stars and moon, and the
sun, and angels, and Mommy. Where's Mommy? Make me a happy dream, Daddy. See, I can
walk as fast as you. Isn't Mommy pretty? See, she's all yellow. Her shoes are yellow, yellow
pants, yellow shirt, and it's all yellow around her. It's a fuzzy yellow and I can sort of see through
I think I can go back to sleep now, Daddy. Please don't you and Mommy die, too. Dreams
can sure be scary.
What is your reaction to 'The Tea Party?' Most people are unable to read this story
without becoming quite uneasy. How do we deal with nightmares when we suddenly hear a child
screaming in her sleep? Or when confronted by a terrified child who has just awakened from a
There is little if any point in trying to get the child to relate the nightmare to us. If she is
able to explain, the effect will only be to continue her fear. The likelihood is, though, that she
will be unable to explain to us what the nightmare was all about.
Next, it is important to help the child make the difficult transition from sleep to
wakefulness. In fact, the quicker and more abrupt the transition, the better. Holding the child,
trying to get her to talk to us about the dream, trying to be soothing and supportive will only
prolong this. One reason for this quick transition is to create a clear demarcation between the
nightmare and reality. This will help the child understand that dreams are dreams and are quite
Typically, children start having nightmares around the age of three or four years. They
will occasionally have a bad dream until they are six or seven. (Of course, most of us still have
bad dreams on rare occasions.) A few children never have to deal with nightmares, although most
children do. It is important to see that nightmares are not necessarily related to parents, parenting,
living circumstances or life situations; they are just one of those things most children go through.
When a child starts having nightmares, they will occur less frequently if we take a little
time with the child when he is put to bed. First, be sure that he takes half an hour or so to get
ready for bed. If he has been active or seems excited or upset about something, it will be helpful
to spend twenty minutes or so with him. Talk with him a while, read a story, sing a song to him,
sit on the side of the bed for a few minutes as he goes to sleep. This will help him relax and
reduce the likelihood of a nightmare.
What if the child has a nightmare despite our efforts to be sure he is settled down before
sleep? First, without being loud or angry, and in a calm but firm tone, insist that the child get out
of bed if he has not already done so. Say, 'You are having a dream. Get up.' If necessary, gently
assist the child. Next, insist that he go into the bathroom and attempt to use the toilet. While he is
using the toilet or as soon as he has finished, wipe his face with a cold cloth; wiping his neck and
arms if necessary to get him to wake up. In addition, stay with him and talk, get him to talk about
other things, like school, until you are sure he is awake. Remember, the idea is to help him make
the quickest possible transition between sleep and being fully awake without becoming
aggressive or angry.
The child may try to tell us about the nightmare. Should you be receptive to the
discussion? No! Say to the child, 'That sounds like it was really scary, but it was just a dream
and I want you to wake up.' Occasionally, we may need to repeat this two or three times in one
night; the same steps should be followed each time. The next morning say to him, 'You sure had
a bad dream last night. It was really good that you were able to go to the bathroom and wake up.'
Don't make too much out of this, because it may be embarrassing for the child if brothers and
sisters or other adults know about his bad dream. It will also help to tell the child, 'I used to have
bad dreams like that when I was your age, but I finally got over them.'
ANGER AND TEMPER TANTRUMS:
Anger is human. It is in the interest of self-protection and self-assertion and it is also
potentially destructive and self-defeating. As with other emotions, anger is initially and
fundamentally a subjective experience. A child feels angry. This is the experience of anger. In
general, the experience of anger in children should not in any way be interfered with. It is, rather,
the expression of anger with which parenting is concerned.
What sets off anger in children? Basically, anger in children is set off in the same way
and for the same reasons as anger in adults. We become angry when things are not the way we
want them to be, when things do not happen the way we want them to happen, or when we feel
that we are being interfered with. This is primary anger. In general, our anger continues until we
get what we want and in the way we want it.
This natural state of affairs cannot continue throughout life. We cannot always have
things the way we want them, when we want them, and in exactly the form we want them.
Fortunately, both the experience and the expression of anger have several interesting
characteristics that enable children to get beyond this natural state of affairs and allow them to
become both civilized and specialized. First, the experience of anger varies from a little to a lot,
depending on the circumstances. Next, the initial intensity of anger, high or low, tends to either
increase or decrease over time. Thus, the experience of anger can start at a low level and intensify
over time with relatively little change in what is causing the anger.
The experience of anger can also start at a fairly extreme level but diminish over time
even when there is very little change in what is evoking the anger. For example, a three-year- old
is building a tower with blocks and finally gets the structure so high that it falls over. Her
immediate reaction is intense anger. When nothing happens with the scattered blocks after two or
three minutes, she settles down. Clearly, the anger which she initially experienced has
Can we just ignore children when they become angry, and assume the anger will go
away? In fact, here is what would happen. The child would gradually no longer experience anger
or would do so only occasionally. At the extreme, the child would become lethargic and almost
totally passive, experiencing little if any anger, having an almost total sense of futility and
powerlessness, and showing almost no self-assertiveness or autonomy. At the other extreme
would be the child whose anger always evoked the desired response. Getting angry becomes a
nearly guaranteed way to get what he wants. It is clear that this child would learn to experience
anger more quickly and more intensely and to express that anger more vigorously more often.
Getting angry would become a way of life. Clearly, either extreme (lethargy and powerlessness,
or anger as a way of life) is totally unacceptable for developing children, or adults for that matter.
The goal of parenting is to strike a happy medium.
The goal of anger is to modify circumstances - power. Do we have the power to modify
things? For example, a small infant will get angry when he becomes uncomfortable from lying on
his back too long. Turning him over on his stomach makes him more comfortable and less angry.
Once he has the power to turn himself over, he will no longer have to lie on his back and get
angry. Having or not having the power to control one's environment is, then, the operative factor
Temper tantrums exemplify the expression of anger. It is desirable for a child to
experience anger and frustration to motivate him to develop the power to change his world. The
child needs to learn when and how to express his anger, while at the same time developing
abilities which help him control the things that make him angry. For example, two children are
playing checkers and a dispute develops. Both children need to learn that having temper
tantrums, breaking the checkerboard, throwing the checkers, or hitting the other child are not
acceptable expressions of anger. It's alright to be angry but there are acceptable and unacceptable
ways of expressing that anger.
One of the children may have already learned something about using power in situations
like this. At an unacceptable level, he may have learned that threatening to quit is a good way to
get his own way. In a more acceptable manner, he may have learned to defer to written
directions, a parent or older brother or sister. At an even more advanced level of exercising
power, he may have learned to say, 'Let's flip a coin to see who's right.' Converting the
experience of anger into the effective exercise of power has become fairly sophisticated.
As parents, then, our task is not to deal with the experience of anger but rather to deal
with the expression of anger in a way that helps the child learn to exercise power over his world.
How do we do this? We begin by selectively responding to certain expressions of anger and not
to others. For an infant, we consistently respond to expressions of anger when they seem related
to discomfort, pain, hunger, or other physical needs. By the time the infant is a few months old,
though, we respond less immediately. About the same time, we begin to refrain from always
responding to the infant's desire to be rocked to sleep, to be held and carried around, and so on.
The child soon learns that there is little point in having a temper tantrum over being left in the
crib alone at night. The same principle applies to expressions of anger in children of all ages.
'You can continue being angry but you might as well settle down because I am not going to do
anything about what is making you angry.'
Our next level of response to unacceptable expressions of anger in children is negative
discipline. The temper tantrum or expression of anger (from the child's perspective) is supposed
to lead to desirable results. If a tantrum leads to negative consequences, the child will give up
expressing anger in this way. We might, for example, make the child sit on a chair, go to her
room, or do something else she does not want to do. She will learn that the temper tantrum led to
these unwanted consequences. Over time, she will either find better ways of expressing the anger
or will stop experiencing anger about the specific situation or circumstances.
Unacceptable expressions of anger such as hitting, kicking, throwing things, and refusing
to cooperate, can occasionally be ignored and occasionally linked to negative consequences.
Whether to ignore or link with negative consequences depends on the individual temperaments
of the parents, how unacceptable the behavior is, how quickly it needs to be stopped, and so on.
Most parents develop a good balance. The parent who always links the behavior with negative
consequences or always ignores is probably not dealing with the complexity and variability of
children or situations.
Many times, neither ignoring the child's behavior nor linking the behavior with negative
consequences is appropriate. The child needs to learn how to do things, how to express himself
or herself, how to cause things to happen, how to change situations and circumstances. For
instance, the child needs to learn about experiencing and using power. If the children playing
checkers get into a fight or start throwing the checkers, it will be well to firmly insist that they
settle down and stop being destructive. In addition, it may be well to suggest the possibility of
taking turns or looking up the rules. Alternatives to unsocialized expressions of anger may not
occur to children spontaneously. This is where we ought to help them develop new skills,
encourage them to look at alternative ways of dealing with the situation, help them to slow down
so that things may work out the way they want them to.
In general, then, the experience of anger in children is natural and healthy. We should do
nothing to interfere with this. The expression of anger in children represents an attempt to
exercise power over the environment or is a reaction to having one's power thwarted. When
children are expressing anger we can do one of four things: We can give in (meet their need or do
what they want us to do); give up (do nothing and simply ignore their expressions of anger);
'give them hell' (respond with negative consequences); or give them help (teach them how to
express themselves more acceptably or how to get things to work out the way they want them to).
Which alternative we choose depends on the child, the situation, what is wanted or needed, and
how developmentally ready the child is to deal with the world differently. When a child is
behaving in a way which is unacceptable to us, we want to encourage certain responses while
discouraging others. Temper tantrums and undesirable or unacceptable expressions of anger are
forms of behavior that need to be discouraged. We can then use a mix of the four types of
POUTING AND WITHDRAWAL:
Although the majority of children use self-assertion and temper tantrums as the primary
means of dealing with the experience of anger, some children seem to be inherently more passive
and less assertive. We recognize anger in these children through their tendency to pout and
Through whatever mechanism the pouting and withdrawing behavior develops, it is
unacceptable and ineffectual. Just as it is unacceptable for two children who quarrel over a
checker game to have temper tantrums, it is also unacceptable for either of them to withdraw,
become whiny, or refuse to play or interact with others for a long period of time.
As with other problematic behavior, dealing with pouting and withdrawal hardly seems
worth the effort on any given occasion. It is, however, worth it in the long run. If children learn
that pouting and withdrawal usually get them what they want, the behavior will persist. If they do
not get what they want, they will be forced to come up with more effective ways of dealing with
their angry feelings.
How do we deal with pouting and withdrawal in children? Most typically, by ignoring it.
This is true unless it has become pathological. For example, some children pout or remain
withdrawn for days or weeks at a time. In these extreme situations, ignoring the behavior will
only make it worse. These children need professional mental health attention. Here, we want to
focus not on chronic pouters but on children who use withdrawal and pouting as a temporary
response to angry feelings.
With children who withdraw or pout for a few minutes or a few hours, ignoring the
behavior will gradually result in their getting bored with pouting and withdrawing. Their urge to
participate and receive attention will motivate them to give up pouting and withdrawing. If
possible, then, a first response to pouting and withdrawing behavior is to simply ignore it, for as
much as a few hours if necessary.
A second kind of response to pouting and withdrawal is to insist that the child stop the
behavior. If this does not work, insisting may be escalated through having the child come out of
his room to watch TV with everyone else, making him sit at the supper table whether he eats or
not, insisting that he participate in a particular activity, and so on.
A third approach to pouting and withdrawing behavior is to encourage the child to talk
with you about his feelings and to express them. It really does help if he can get it off his chest.
A fourth way of dealing with this type of behavior is to talk with the child about the
circumstances that evoked the pouting and withdrawal and to help him think of alternative ways
of dealing with the situation. It will give him an increased sense of power to have some ideas and
notions about how to deal with the problem when it comes up in the future.
Sometimes, of course, pouting and withdrawal (as with temper tantrums) are more or less
justified. The appropriate response from us then is to change the situation evoking the anger. For
example, an adolescent may have asked for permission to go to a ball game. Unfortunately, we
are upset about something else and we tell the child no. The child experiences anger and starts
pouting and withdrawing. Then we realize that we have been unfair. So, we go to the child and
say, 'You asked me about going to the ball game and I told you no. Now I realize I was upset
with something else and said no without really thinking. I really think it will be fine if you go to
the ball game.' Adolescents being the way they are, the child may not accept our change of heart
and may continue to pout and withdraw and refuse to go to the ball game. At that point, it
becomes the adolescent's problem. His pouting and withdrawing are only then unacceptable.
EXCITEMENT AND HAVING FUN:
Infants show us most clearly what excitement and having fun are all about. Perhaps the
excitement comes from a new toy, mother's returning home, a bottle of milk or some ice cream
when she was a little hungry, or any number of other things. As parents, we are frequently a little
surprised to see what small and seemingly inconsequential things will evoke excitement in an
As the infant becomes a toddler and she can understand when things are about to happen,
we can see these same signs of excitement being evoked by the anticipation of situations and
events. We tell her that we are going swimming, going to visit Grandpa, going to stop for ice
cream, or that some favorite friends are coming to visit, that Mom or Dad will be home from
work soon, or that something else pleasurable is going to happen, and toddler becomes excited
almost as if it were happening then.
It is a very sad fact that many adults have lost the ability to enjoy themselves and to
become enthusiastic about things. Unfortunately, some adults who can experience fun and
excitement are either unable to share the feelings with others, or they express the feelings in a
way that alienates other people. It is important for our children that we nurture and encourage
their capacity to experience fun and excitement, and encourage the expression of those feelings
in ways that help them become adults who can experience pleasure and good times fully and
spontaneously, and who can give expression to these feelings in sharing and socially contagious
It starts with the infant. He learns about excitement and having fun from us. It is unlikely
that he will develop the spontaneous experience of fun and excitement unless we are genuinely
excited about and have fun from holding him, playing with him, feeding him and giving him a
bath, touching him and making funny noises to get him to respond - generally being with him and
doing things for him. If we do not find him fun and exciting, he is not very likely to find us or the
rest of the world fun and exciting. This principle (the child finds life fun and exciting if we find
the child fun and exciting) continues throughout development.
With children of any age, but especially with adolescents, many parent/child problems
can be resolved or reduced if parents will just overlook the negative and focus on increasing fun
and excitement in the relationship. Try it for a month or six weeks. Spend more time with the
child, overlook negative attitudes and problematic behavior, find good things to talk about. Sit
down with the child while she is watching TV. Sit down with her and listen to her music, go
outside and ask if you can play when she is playing with friends, ask if you can go to a ball game
or movie with her (with the understanding that she can bring you home and then go for a ride),
ask her to tell you about the book she is reading (including comic books). Give your emphasis to
listening to her talk about what interests her. Play her game according to her rules; participate in
her activities on her terms. This is not a cure-all and occasionally may not help very much.
Nonetheless, it will help a lot of the time and you may even have a little more fun and excitement
in your own life.
Since in large measure our children will grow up to derive fun and excitement from the
same things that are fun and exciting to us, we do need to be clear about what kinds of things we
want our children to enjoy and what we want them to avoid. We want them to enjoy school,
reading, and music, to have fun at parties, to feel good about being with their family and friends.
We may also want to encourage interest in swimming, playing ball, riding bicycles, having pets,
cooking, sewing, working on hobbies, or any number of other things. We should let them know
that these things are fun and exciting. We will also have a list of things we hope our children will
not see as fun and exciting. Hopefully, the list of things we want to encourage will be at least as
long as the list of things we want to discourage.
Next, many activities that are fun require special instruction; for example, we want to
make the learning process as much fun as possible. Nonetheless, the learning process needs to be
handled in a careful and sometimes fairly strict way. There are many things that need to be
learned to be enjoyed. It may not be a lot of fun to learn how to play chess but may be exciting
once one knows how. The same holds for building block towers, riding a bicycle, roller-skating,
cooking, and so on. The range of things which need to be learned about or mastered before they
can be enjoyed is extensive. We should observe what our children become interested in, in case
special instruction is needed.
In general, having fun and excitement arises fairly spontaneously in children if they are
nurtured and encouraged, and if the child's expression of these feelings is appropriately
contained. For example, the child who becomes excited about participating in some activity must
learn not to push and shove, or in some situations not to scream and yell, must learn to do some
things slowly and carefully. It is equally important to understand that on certain occasions we
may not want to enforce these limits so harshly. It is only natural for children to be a little more
enthusiastic at birthday parties, on holidays or special occasions. We should be a little more
tolerant and loosen the limits a little on such special occasions. Even then, there are limits to
what we will accept.
Boredom is a condition that can be seen in infants, children, and adults of all ages. Much
of the time, the infant entertains herself. She really seems to enjoy just being alive and involved
in the world. At other times, though, she becomes fussy, irritable, unhappy, and generally
discontent. What is wrong with her? She is bored.
For the infant and toddler, boredom is a frequent state of affairs. This fact is partly why the infant
or toddler is always getting into everything and always under foot. Nothing holds his attention
very long. He is always looking for new things to get into and novel ways to deal with boredom.
Further, he spends a lot of time trying to get us to relieve his boredom.
The preschooler will experience boredom less often, since his attention span is longer.
Nonetheless, he becomes bored fairly easily, especially on rainy days or when he is sick and has
to stay in his room, or when he is full of energy and has no good outlets for it. We understand
what boredom is (an uncomfortable low level of stimulation) and understand that it is a problem
for children when they do not have enough to occupy their active minds and bodies.
When children are bored, then, what should we do about it? We have three options for
dealing with children who are bored. First, we can respond in a negative (limit setting) way.
Second, we can respond in a positive or helpful way. Third, we can do nothing about it. Although
all three possible responses are used with children of all ages, the specific choice depends on the
age of the child. With the infant, our most typical response will be positive and helpful. With the
toddler and preschooler, our response will be a combination of helpfulness and limit setting. For
the grade schooler and adolescent, our response will frequently reflect a do-nothing or 'that is
your problem' attitude. Let us look more specifically at these three options.
A positive response to boredom is quite essential if children are to learn constructive and
creative ways of dealing with being bored. With the infant, once we have recognized the signs of
boredom, we can pick her up, play with her, make noises or do other things that will amuse her -
turn her over, move her from one place to another, turn on the music box or the radio. For the
toddler or preschooler, we can sit on the floor and play for a while, read to her, help her think of
something fun to do. For the grade schooler or adolescent, we can suggest that she visit friends or
have friends over, offer to play a game, involve her in what we are doing, or just sit and talk for a
It will help to anticipate situations in which children are likely to become bored. For
instance, when children have to spend a lot of time in a car, it will be very good to have a travel
kit with a supply of pencils and paper, puzzles, hand-held-games, coloring books and crayons,
and toys. Most children also enjoy a sing- along while riding in a car, or word games.
Children are inclined to express their boredom in somewhat negative and destructive
ways. They may become more irritable and more inclined to fight and argue with each other, may
do destructive things such as picking at the upholstery or pulling holes in their clothing, may just
start getting into everything they should stay out of. When children behave unacceptably because
they are bored, we should first respond to the misbehavior by setting limits that let them know
that the behavior is not acceptable. Once we have dealt with that problem in a firm way, we can
consider whether or not to help relieve the boredom.
Our third option is to ignore the boredom. Life really is boring a lot of the time for all of
us. When we are bored, we need to think of something to do; when we have to do something
boring, we need to learn to tolerate the boredom and do the job in spite of it. Children must learn
both of these approaches to boredom, to follow through with boring jobs and responsibilities.
Our best approach to a child's boredom is to ignore it. She needs to learn to entertain or
occupy herself, to be innovative and creative when bored, to follow through with responsibilities
despite being bored and most importantly to tolerate being bored from time to time.
DISAPPOINTMENT AND LOSS:
When things, people or events are not as we anticipate or when they do not continue as
we expect, and our expectation had been of some thing positive, perhaps even exciting, we call
this emotional reaction disappointment. Alternatively, if our anticipation of something was
negative, characterized by apprehension, we call the emotional reaction relief. As parents, we
need to help deal with these emotions. We need to be supportive when the hurt feelings or
disappointments are intense and also to be happy and excited when their relief and excitement are
real. We need to be there to share the excitement and happiness when things work out well, and
to help the child deal with disappointment when things do not work out well.
Loss is a more intense example of disappointment and relief. Understanding loss is,
however, a little more difficult than understanding disappointment or relief. The idea is best seen
in terms of relationships.
Children have relationships with family, friends, teachers, neighbors, and (very
importantly) with pets. If one of these relationships is interrupted as a result of death, someone
moving away, the child having to move, or someone just simply breaking off the relationship, the
child will experience loss. Loss in this sense is much more than simply losing a toy. The
relationship is part of the child and is part of who the child is. When the relationship is gone, part
of the child is gone.
The loss experienced by an adolescent when a girl friend breaks off a relationship is not
inconsequential. It is very real. At a less intense level, children experience the same sense of loss
over a lot of things. The infant may experience loss over having a favorite toy taken away, over
no longer being allowed to sleep with a favorite doll or stuffed animal, and almost always when
no longer being allowed to drink from bottle or breast on demand. This is partly why weaning
must be handled gently.
Sometimes a toddler will experience loss when toilet training is begun - a loss of
freedom. Children experience loss when toys get broken, when they can no longer have their
favorite blanket, or when left with a baby-sitter. The preschooler and grade schooler experience a
sense of loss when friends get upset with them, when they feel parents or teachers are unhappy
with them. A few children experience intense loss when first having to go to school. They fear
they have lost their home, the special relationship with mother or father, and to some extent, their
childhood. The adolescent experiences loss with a decrease of status, social involvement, or
acceptance by others. Here we can see that the loss does not necessarily have to be actual to be
experienced. Our parenting needs to help them look at the difference between real and apparent
loss as well as to help them deal with the experience of loss.
As parents, we need to help the child deal with both the experience of and expression of
disappointment and loss. Before we can do this, though, we have to recognize the feelings
involved to tune into what has happened and to how the child is feeling. This empathy is a
necessary prerequisite to helping children deal with disappointment and loss.
Sometimes children will surprise us by not being as upset as, or by being more upset than
we anticipate or think they ought to be. Before we react to our surprise, though, we should take a
little more time to see if we have correctly understood and interpreted their feelings. We might
say, 'You don't seem very upset about that.' They can then let us know if we understand where
they are emotionally. Of course, it is important to understand that, if disappointment or loss is
extreme, children may repress, deny, or become emotionally confused, thus not experiencing the
full thrust of their emotions. At other times, they may not be very upset over things which would
upset us. We should keep both of these possibilities in mind.
The very fact of our understanding his emotions will be supportive to the child. We can
let the child know that we know how he feels, can be reassuring, can hold or cuddle him, let him
know that it is alright to be upset or cry, and generally help him experience his emotions within
the safety and security of his relationship with us. Next, we must help him deal with the
expression of his disappointment and loss. Whether the disappointment or loss is minor or
severe, however, there are limits which must be imposed. It is up to parents to impose these
limits in a sensitive but firm way.
When a favorite pet dies, it is reasonable for a child to be upset and to experience loss. It
is not acceptable for him to be irritable and hard to get along with for a few days, not appropriate
for him to destroy the pet's cage or equipment, and not reasonable or healthy for him to go
through mourning as if a friend or member of the family had died. At some point, based on our
sensitivity and judgment, we need to say, 'I am really sorry that your pet died and understand that
you are upset about it. But it is time to straighten up and accept it.' This same parenting response
may be necessary over the death of a friend or family member. Although a period of mourning
and disorientation is natural and necessary, there comes a point when things must get back to
normal. Letting the emotional preoccupation and negativism continue past this reasonable point
can have a very negative and destructive effect on the child.
In some situations, children must learn to cover up their negative emotional reactions. A
seven-year-old who receives handkerchiefs for his birthday instead of a toy must learn to say,
'Thank you, I can always use some more handkerchiefs.' The adolescent who blows lines in a
class play must learn to say, 'I blew it; better luck next time.' Yes, children do need to learn
about softening, even misrepresenting the expression of their emotions in consideration of the
feelings of other. At times, we even need to help them do this. A child who does not learn to
selectively experience disappointment and loss will be upset much too much of the time. Life is
full of minor disappointments and losses. We need to learn to take a lot of them in stride.
LOVE AND HATE:
How do children develop their inborn capacity to love? How do they learn to give and
receive love? Starting at birth, love and acceptance must exist around her for the infant to begin
to love. Love is the emotional food of life. Without it we starve. We can also overdo it.
Children must learn, as well, that love has its limits. A child does something we find
particularly annoying or unacceptable. We say, 'I do not feel very good about you or about what
you have done right now. I want you to go to your room and stay for a while to give me a chance
to settle down and think through my feelings.'
In another situation we may need to discipline a child. She becomes upset and contrite.
Do we pick her up and tell her that we love her and are sorry we had to discipline her? No, we go
on and so does she. After a while, we will feel differently and so will she. Love will return to the
relationship along with the caring feelings.
The child needs to learn not that love is all the time and forever, but that the relationship
is solid and lasting and can tolerate a wide variety of emotions, a wide range of behavior, and a
nearly infinite variety of situations. Sometimes we feel loving, sometimes we don't, and a lot of
the time we don't feel much one way or the other toward the child. Still the relationship is secure,
predictable, and continuing. A child says to us, 'I am angry and am going to run away from
home.' Do we say, 'Go ahead and run away if you want to.'? Of course not. We tell the child
that, in our relationship, we do not deal with problems by running away. We deal with each
other, good feelings and bad, love and anger, everything.
They learn about hate when we become angry, upset, annoyed - when we have negative
feelings toward them. They also learn these emotions from brothers and sisters and from friends.
Children sometimes say, 'I hate you' as a reaction to discipline or not getting what they
want. How should we react to this? First, remember that 'I hate you' is an expression used to
label negative and angry feelings. Just as we need to let the child know when we are having
negative feelings toward him, he should be allowed to let us know about his negative feelings
toward us. We should acknowledge the child's feelings by looking at him and listening to what he
is saying without comment or gesture. Or, we can say, 'I hear what you are saying. You are very
angry and upset with me, and feel like you hate me right now.' We never deny his feelings. Yes,
he does feel that way; he really does hate you. It would be appropriate to ask, 'Do you hate me a
little or a lot?' to help him express his feelings in proportion to the intensity.