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12th Mar 2016

What’s Going On, Baby? Understanding Your Child’s Emotions

Emotions can be contagious, especially those expressed vividly by our loved ones. When it comes to difficult emotions, like anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, the infectious nature of them makes things more difficult.

Good judgement can be quickly overridden by two (or more) people caught in the emotional circle. If the first person experiencing difficult emotions is a young child, it can be very hard to understand what is going on and help accordingly.

The obvious complication is that young children can’t explain, they don’t have capacity to understand it. Their bodily reactions and emotional life are much more interdependent than in adults. For example, bodily discomfort can cause huge emotional distress and because the baby doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with it other than very dynamic, powerful expression, this in turn makes the discomfort worse.

Let’s imagine the child crying inconsolably, perhaps they are angry or frustrated. There are three typical responses to how the parent deals with the child’s distress:

1. Blocking emotions

The mother or father might not be able to connect with this distressful emotional experience and blocks the child’s emotions off. They might pick up the baby and rock him or her, circulating the room, but at an emotional and psychological level, they are absent and protect themselves from hearing or seeing what’s going on with the child because it’s too painful or too much to deal with.

2. Giving back emotions

The parent takes in the child’s emotions, soaking them up like a sponge, and gets upset and overwhelmed. She or he gets affected by the child’s emotional experience (sad or angry) and throws these emotions back at the child in a raw and unprocessed way, adding some of his/her own feelings. For example, she gets very angry – and also anxious and guilty for becoming angry in the first place.

In two cases above, thinking gets overpowered by emotional experience and it’s impossible to figure out what is really happening and what actions should we undertake for the child.

3. Containing emotions

The mother/father who has strength and ability connects with the child and helps her/him to go though a difficult moment, containing the emotional experience. The parent does get affected by child’s emotion – they feel and  acknowledge them at a deep emotional level – but the containing parent tries to stay calm, talk to the baby, rock the baby and think for the baby; what might be the cause of the upset emotions?  This means that they let the emotion go through their system: not trying to desperately get rid of it, but attempting to experience it without anxiety. With this process, the emotion usually fades away, the baby or child calms enough to eat or sleep.

The ability to contain our own emotions, as well as the emotions of our children is, in my view, the most helpful of all parental ‘tools’. In fact it’s a basis for healthy, mature and caring relations with all people who are important to us.

Writing this piece, I remembered the moment in my life when I was held and contained by another person. It was just over a year ago when I was giving birth to my second child. The midwife who assisted me through all long process had a wonderful ability to help me deal with my emotional experience of labour. She was there, as a gentle touch of reality, in these moments when I was losing clear judgment. She patiently provided every possible comfort when I thought the pain was never going to end. She stayed composed and calm, which allowed her to make the right decisions regarding the process. I felt emotionally connected to her.

I think this is exactly what a small baby, who understands very little of what is going on, needs when going through a difficult time.

Agata Western is a Psychologist at Balancing Parents, mum and trainer specialising in life-long learning and personal development. She facilitates parenting workshops, which promote the understanding of emotional experience of parenting. Next workshop: Galway, June 5