“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME!” My child was just four when she screamed this at us. After I managed to contain my giggles and my fears about what this child might say at 14 –if at 4 she already felt so misunderstood — I realized she had a point. I did understand that she was angry but I did not understand why she was so angry. All I really wanted was for her to stop screaming at the top of her lungs. I knew that if I ignored her she would stop but she was right, I did not understand what she wanted or needed.

With perfect hindsight, I can see what she was trying to say. She was trying to tell me that she herself did not understand. She did not know what would make it better and she did not trust that either my spouse or I had a clue. She was trying to say I “don’t know how to calm down and I don’t want to feel like this any longer”. I suspect that this is pretty close to what she will mean at 14 years of age should she have cause to say it again.

These moments when our children are seemingly totally out of control are when we are called upon to dig deep and see the world through our child’s eyes. Children between 3 and 5 years of age are in the middle of learning one of the most important social-emotional skills of their lives. They are learning to manage their emotions. This is a big deal, a difficult task, and the pendulum swings fast and far. Too far in one direction and a young child does not tell you when they have been hurt. Go off in the other direction and a child falls out all over the place over every single disappointment, frustration, and limit set.  How do we help them stay in balance while they learn to find words for their feelings and ways to change their anger, fear, and sadness into satisfaction, peace, competence, and confidence?

We actually started a long time ago. Every time you picked your infant up to soothe her, you started teaching. Every time you handed your toddler the toy he was reaching for or helped him get it himself by showing him how to move something out of the way, you were teaching. Every time you praised her for waiting for 30 seconds so you could give her all of your attention and she could share her special work of art. At first, we soothe, comfort, distract, and amuse our children. As they grow we celebrate their independent efforts to soothe themselves, remove frustrations, ask for help, wait for help. These are fundamental learning experiences for them and for us.

Yes, us too. We are learning to understand them. We are learning how to satisfy them. We are learning how to encourage them and how to support them while they struggle with something hard. They are learning not to give up. They are learning to cheer themselves, they are learning that feeling angry and sad is temporary. Children learn that when we are available to help them. They learn to feel secure and trust that things will improve when they feel angry, sad, hurt, or scared because a caregiver is with them to help them solve the problem. They are learning the words and mechanisms that support self-control when you show self-control. If you label your feelings and solve problems with others in calm and supportive ways, they will watch and learn. College students with good emotional management skills tend to report that their parents modeled these skills.

We are best prepared to do this when we know what children are generally able to do. Every child is different but there are some general developmental stages that set a few limits on what children can learn when. The more you know about what your child is ready to learn the more likely you can begin to understand where they are coming from.

The Zero to Three website has several handouts that summarize what researchers know about development. On this page there are handouts on self-control. On the left of the page, there are several other topics to explore. Enjoy!