Understanding Your Child's Emotional Development
You take your child to the doctor for routine vaccinations and wellness checks. You make sure she eats well, takes her vitamins, and stays active and fit. But how do you ensure healthy emotional development?
The truth is, emotional health is a lot less quantifiable than physical health and development. Children progress emotionally at different rates, so what is “normal” for one child may not be normal for another. Temperaments, personalities and life’s stressors all complicate the picture of what is — or is not — healthy.
First, let’s define healthy emotional development. Children are developing in an emotionally healthy way when they are reasonably content and able to successfully participate in and cope with day-to-day routines and activities in age-appropriate ways. Children should be able to approach these activities without parents and teachers regularly making special accommodations or exceptions. Such activities include, but are not limited to:
- Comfortably leaving a parent to go to school.
- Participating in a range of activities in a school or social setting.
- Making and playing with friends.
- Gradually taking over self-care tasks at home and at school (toileting, dressing, eating).
- Going to bed/sleeping at night.
Is there cause for concern if a child has difficulty in one area, such as independently going to sleep at night, but is otherwise developing normally? To answer this question, we will use four measures of whether the emotional issue — in this case, feeling safe at night — is just a bump in the road or sign of a deeper issue.
1. Pervasiveness of the symptom. Does your child need extra support — such as one more story or time to cuddle — before he can go to sleep, or is he dependent upon an adult sleeping by his side all night? Is this a recent development or something that has been going on for a while? Does not giving in to every request cause mild discomfort for the child, or are his tantrums a more worrisome indicator?
2. Coexistence of challenges in other social and emotional areas. Does the separation at nighttime seem to be isolated or are there struggles in other areas? Have separations such as going to school, being with a babysitter or other caregiver, or allowing a parent to be out of sight challenged your child for a while? Do you find yourself making multiple accommodations to avoid excessive disruption or tantrums? Are there problems at school or with your child’s ability to make or play with friends?
3. General path of development. Does your child’s ability to cope with the problem seem to be progressing, or does she seem stuck? In many cases, slight regressions occur throughout development but children gradually work their way through them, taking little steps of progress and moving along in a general direction.
4. Modifications made by adults. How often do you make accommodations or special arrangements to support your child’s day-to-day activities? Does the difficulty interfere with your family’s routine?
There is no standard measure to know when a parent or teacher should worry about a child’s emotional development. Carefully judge and weigh the various factors we have listed. If answers to these questions suggest a problem that is longstanding, entrenched or part of a larger pattern, there may be reason to be concerned about the child’s emotion development. Teachers and parents who are unsure should seek consultation with a qualified professional to sort out whether further evaluation is sensible.