Words Give Control
Updated: Jul 27
Oh, humans. We love to observe, find patterns, make connections, and categorize things to help us make sense of the world.
We do it from the time we are pudgy (or not so pudgy) toddlers just beginning to speak. A toddler will often pass through a stage, where all four legged creatures are called “doggie.” This small human sees all manner of objects around him, and he’s figured out something is the same about animals. They don't look like people, but they make noise and move. He’s got a limited vocabulary and experience, so for now cats and dogs and wolves and lions can all be sorted into one category-dog. Soon he’ll have more words and therefore more categories in his brain to store the names of all those animals.
In fancy early childhood lingo, we are talking about schema as described by Piaget's theory of cognitive development.
Names and words are wonderfully useful little boxes for organizing thoughts, feelings, objects, experiences, and...well, everything. When we can name things, we have the power to take abstract concepts, feelings, objects, and images, and contain them in a concrete unit.
This is one of the reasons that when covering the topic of tantrums, most parenting literature will say “name and validate your child’s feeling.” For example, “I see you are angry. You really wanted that toy. You are mad that it is not your turn.”
Now, I am always a bit leery of articles that say, "The one thing you NEED to do to stop tantrums in their tracks!" Because even when it is the 100% right thing to do, there are going to be SO MANY days where you validate feelings until you are blue in the face, and all you have to show for it is a (still) screaming child. Still though, the number one thing I do when a child is upset, or not "listening to my words," is to validate and name those feelings. Often, it really does stop unwanted behavior in its tracks, because is it gives the child that which we all seek-to be heard, to be understood, and to know someone cares.
But, there is another reason as well. One that I think will ultimately help children gain the important skill of emotional regulation. When we identify children's feelings again and again, over time, the child learns that that force in his body that makes him kick and scream and throw things, though you can't see it or touch it, it has a name. It’s called anger.
"Anger." Now our budding human has a little category, a little box, to place this emotion. It is no longer this amorphous, powerful, non-tangible thing that exists nowhere. It has a lovely little space in the brain, where she can store lots of information about it; the things that make her angry; how she respond when we she is angry; what makes her feel better; how long she feels angry for; what happens to the people around her when she is mad. She can talk about it when it is not happening. And the more she knows about anger, the better she can cope with it.
Let's keep the following in mind:
Now the lives of many adults would be way easier if children learned about this anger thing all in one go. But they don't. It takes A LOT of practice. The emotions are strong, the situations are many. Over the course of toddler-hood and the preschool years, they will get angry a million times (not a scientific count), about a million (give or take hundreds of thousands) different things. The reasons for their rage will vary from the big and understandable, like I want to build a tower but my blocks keep falling down, to the infinitesimally small, like I wanted a whole cookies, but then I took a bite and now it's not whole anymore.
And all the while they are learning. They are gathering data. They are filling up that basket.
They are building up their 10,000 hours. They are building up to the expert level of being a human with emotions who lives in a society with behavioral and cultural norms.
And we adults can help them along by labeling, and talking, and reflecting.
"Remember yesterday when you were so frustrated about your block tower? After you cried, you felt better."
"You are so mad you have to take turns with that toy." And then, "You didn't want to take turns, but then you did!"
And perhaps one of the reasons that children's tantrums abate as they get older, is that they now have a slew of experiences of being angry (or sad, or happy). They have been there and done that over and over and over, and they have gained some valuable information. They now know that being upset does not last forever. They have practiced being upset, and becoming happy (or content) again. Furthermore, at the same time, they are learning countless other details about the world.
It's kind of magical how humans grow and develop.
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