Raising children in the modern age is a real challenge indeed. All children go through distinct periods of development as they move from infants to young adults.
During each of these stages, multiple changes in the development of the brain are taking place.
What occurs and approximately when these developments take place are at one point genetically determined but at many other different points environmentally influenced.
Thus parents, culture and society all play significant roles in the betterment of the child.
The danger of underdeveloped emotion regulation
The failure to regulate emotion is called dysregulation. Infants display a number of emotions early in the first six months, including sadness, surprise, interest, joy, fear and anger. Babies have at least three types of cries — basic, anger and pain cries.
In infancy, contact comfort and trust are important in the development of attachment. Three types of insecure attachment are avoidant, resistant and disorganised.
Caregivers of secure babies are sensitive to the babies’ signals and are consistently available to meet their needs.
In the classroom, children with externalising behaviours frequently do the following: non-responsive to instructions, can’t sit still and frequently get out of their seats, disturb their peers and often ignore the teacher.
They also argue excessively, have aggressive tempers and not complete their homework.
Some children with emotional and behavioural disorders are the opposite — too little social interaction with others.
They are said to have internalising behavioural disorders. Their behaviour creates a serious impediment to their development.
They usually do not have the social skills needed to make friends and have fun, and they often retreat into daydreams and fantasies.
Some are fearful of things without reason, frequently complaining of being sick or hurt and going into deep bouts of depression.
The dysregulated child becomes a dysregulated adult. The key to tackling the issue is to detect it as early as possible and intervene.
Before the age of five, children’s brains and neurons are growing at a tremendous rate. Habits and manners often can be easily manipulated at this stage.
Stage One: Regulation and shared attention
In the first four months, infants are learning about their world through their senses.
— Be sensitive to how your baby acts toward different stimuli and adjust temperature, noise level, movement, light and touch to make your baby feel most at ease.
— More is not necessary better. Never over-stimulate your baby nor overfeed them.
— Help your baby find ways to comfort and calm himself/herself. Provide safe toys for mouthing, sucking and cuddling, and talk or sing to your baby in a comforting tone.
Stage Two: Engagement and relatedness
Around four months old, infants begin to learn how to build the type of relationships with people that we relate to as adults. Temperaments of the babies will also be emerging at this stage with some babies being strong-willed while others may be weaker.
— Hold your baby close and affectionately. Remember that the type of hugs you engage in depend on how sensitive your baby is to touch.
— Use bright facial expressions. Again, some babies will need more funny and animated expressions and some will respond better to warm, sweet smiles.
— They become attached to favourite pillows and toys and you need to introduce different sorts of textures.
Stage Three: Two-way purposeful communication
Around eight months old, infants begin to pay attention to whether or not their communication is being received. Their senses become more refined with gustatory, olfactory, visual, auditory and tactile as well as kinetic movements triggering more and more emotional responses.
— Pay close attention to the different ways your baby attempts to communicate with you and respond accordingly. Does he/she turn her head away, push you away or pull you close, make a frowning face or smiling face or grunt or giggle to indicate pleasure or displeasure?
— The more aware of your baby’s cues you become, the better able you are to respond appropriately and to get to know his/her likes and dislikes.
Stage Four: Social problem solving
From 10 to 18 months, toddlers are starting to learn about themselves as individuals. They mimic the behaviour of others and also begin to engage in pretend play.
— Pay attention to the games your child likes to play. Does he/she like to imitate you, play peek-a-boo, try to get you to follow her/his lead or command or to make you laugh?
— Recognise your toddler’s new abilities and play and pretend along with him/her.
— Play outdoors more often.
Stage Five: Creative and meaningful use of ideas
Around 18 to 24 months, toddlers learn to recognise and express their feelings. They can explore their own feelings and the feelings and emotions of others through a lot of pretend play.
— Give your child dress-up clothes, dolls, animals, building blocks, puppets and household props such as kitchen sets. All of these items will help him/her engage in make-believe play and act out her/his feelings.
— Acknowledge your child’s emotions and help him/her describe and label the feelings through appropriate words and gestures.
— Nursery rhymes and fairy tales are enjoyable at this stage. Story-book play and building blocks with giant puzzles can be appreciated.
Stage Six: Building logical
Between two and three years old, they begin to explore the difference between pretend and reality. They can begin to control their own behaviour and to understand and adhere to limitations and rules.
— Continue to engage in pretend play with your child and talk about why it is fun to pretend but why it is not always safe or possible to do those same things in real life.
— Help your child to recognise what is real and what is pretend. He/she may wish to eat cookies and brownies for breakfast every day but in reality knows that this is not a choice you have given because you said it won’t keep her healthy.
— Introduce some limits in daily life in order to help your child stay safe and treat others kindly, but don’t forget to acknowledge your child’s feelings about these limits.
— Teach your child to complete what they have started. A start to finish gives them a sense of completion. For example, brushing their teeth should end with the child returning the toothbrush to the original spot.
Above all, work to build the kind of relationship with your children that you would like them to have with others in the future.
This relationship with you will build the foundation for positive relationships throughout the child’s life.
Middle and late childhood
At this stage, children show a growing awareness about controlling and managing emotions to meet social standards. They show improved emotional understanding, ability to suppress or conceal negative emotions, use self-initiated strategies for redirecting feelings, have an increased tendency to take into fuller account the events that lead to emotional reactions and develop a genuine capacity for empathy.
School life is as much about cooperation as it is about discipline. Children learn about rules and regulations as well as rewards and punishment. They may not enjoy the education, but they surely can remember their friends.
— Celebrate occasions. Invite their friends over for parties and play party games.
— Play physical sports, not computer games. Sportsmanship is one of the best social skills a child can learn.
— Take up art. It puts ideas into action and forms future creativity.
As individuals go through early adolescence, they are less likely to report being very happy. Moodiness is a normal aspect of early adolescence.
Although pubertal change is associated with an increase in negative emotions, hormonal influences are often small and environmental experiences may contribute more to the emotions of adolescents than hormonal changes.
Most of the time, adolescents are searching for an identity. This drives them to take more risks and challenge their limits. Their motivations for behaviour converge towards morality and justice eventually.
If well-motivated and inspired, adolescents become less self-centered adults and more cooperative individuals who choose to live and serve in community.
By adulthood, these adolescents will have a direction in life and hopefully, are more courageous and kinder than their previous generation.
Advice for parents and caregivers
Simple principles worth following for parents and caregivers with emotionally dysregulated children:
1. Always be kind and compassionate to everyone.
2. Uphold fairness and inclusion for all.
3. Embrace the right of each individual to think and act independently, so long as such actions do not hurt others.
4. Let your conscience direct you and always strive for integrity, courage and responsibility.
5. Be grounded in rationality whenever you solve problems, make decisions or take action.
6. Do not seek vengeance or stature, which will only perpetuate an unending cycle of anger and envy. Always be forgiving and humble.
7. Find long-term peace and tranquillity in all that you do. Always be patient.
8. Empower each other to ethically realise our hopes and aspirations for learning and growing, be they mastery of skills or attainment of knowledge.
9. Cherish the way people nurture, care for and love one another.
10. Take joy in the beauty and wonder of the world around us and always aim to find grace in people you meet. Be happy in the here and the now, not perpetually waiting for something better in another place, another time.
The six-step approach to problem solving
Every little problem is an opportunity to grow and develop.
1. Help your children state the problem. Ask each child to describe what is happening then restate the problem.
2. Help your children to brainstorm ideas that may solve the problem. Give them suggestions if necessary.
3. Discuss how the ideas might work. Discuss scenarios and solutions.
4. Have your children agree on what they think is fair.
5. Help your children try out the idea. Step back and watch how they interact.
6. Review the idea to see how it worked.
¦ Dr Alex Khoo Peng Chuan is a paediatrician and child neurologist. This article provides general information only and is not intended to replace, dictate or define evaluation by a qualified paediatrician. The views expressed do not represent that of any organisation that the writer is associated with. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice.