Ways to promote social and emotional health in young children

As parents of young children, one thing most of us are unprepared for is how to deal with the evolving emotional demands of these little people with big personalities. Every time we think we have all of it figured out, they move on to a new stage, bringing on new demands to match.

And as much as we try to be the perfect, composed parents, we often see the resolve flying out of the window as we attempt to tend to their needs while juggling the demanding roles we take on at home and at work. We see our patience wearing thin as we get asked to fix the sliding blanket to seal their den’s door for the tenth time, all while trying to focus on our work and keeping an eye on the fidgety home-schooler.

Why does emotional and social health matter?

Studies show emotional and social health can have a significant impact on children’s overall health and learning. Children who have social and emotional difficulties tend to struggle following directions and participating in learning activities. They are more likely to suffer rejection by classmates, have poor self-esteem and fare poorly in school compared to their mentally healthy counterparts.

As McClellan and Katz explain, children who are socially and emotionally healthy demonstrate and develop several important behaviour and skills. They:

  • Are generally in a positive mood
  • Listen and follow directions
  • Are able to understand others’ emotions and show empathy
  • Cope with rebuffs adequately
  • Negotiate, compromise and assert their own rights and needs appropriately
  • Care about friends and show interest in them

We all know there is no perfect way of parenting, and there is no one shoe-fits-all approach when dealing with children. But there are some tactics we can all try in order to nurture them into socially and emotionally healthy individuals who can manage conflicts, engage in fulfilling relationships and navigate through the uncertainties of life with confidence.

Coaching on the spot

Sending children off to the naughty corner or grounding them without an appropriate explanation, do little to help them fathom the impact of their actions or learn how to handle the situation differently. If Nina snatches a car from Anya, the best way to deal with the situation is to talk to Nina, kneeling to her eye-level and calmly explaining how she has upset Anya by taking away a car she was still playing with. Asking Nina to say sorry for what she did and following up with positive feedback for desirable behaviour, helps her realise what she did wrong, understand how her actions affect others and choose positive alternatives.

Validate and reflect their feelings

Children often resort to tantrums when they feel unheard. Rather than dismiss their concerns with a cursory suggestion to do something else, accepting and reflecting their feeling helps them feel heard and acknowledged. For instance, a helpful way to diffuse a tense ‘Tom is not letting me help him build the tower’ would be to acknowledge his feelings first and maybe say ‘I know it is boring when you have to wait! Looks like he is almost done. How about you make us the yummy carrot soup you were telling me about, while we wait for your turn? Supporting them to identify, label and understand their emotions gives them the confidence to express themselves better.

Give effective praise

Similar to coaching them about undesirable behaviour, it is equally important to give them effective praise without generalising, judging or making comparisons. Giving detailed, positive comments immediately after desirable behaviour helps them build confidence and self-esteem.

Model appropriate behaviour

Children learn by observing others, forming ideas about how new behaviours are developed and using those ideas to guide their actions. In addition to setting expectations and giving reminders (e.g. Magic words, please and Remember to use your gentle hands etc.) it’s important to lead the way by demonstrating appropriate behaviour and remembering to use words to express feelings.

Parenthood is indeed a tall order!