How Young Children Think and Feel
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Young children have only lived a few years on this planet. In these early years, they gain amazing skills and an incredible amount of knowledge. They learn how to talk, walk, run, jump, play – and express love, sadness and anger.
But their skills and knowledge are still very limited. They don’t yet have words to explain everything they’re feeling. They don’t yet understand danger, sickness, or what a pandemic is. They don’t yet understand time, so they can think that what’s happening right now will go on forever. It’s very hard for them to understand why they can’t play with their friends, why they can’t see their grandparents, or why their parents are so worried, tired and distracted.
This situation can lead to frustration and fear.
Young children have very high energy levels. They need to run and play. In fact, playing is the most important way for them to learn. They need an outlet for their energy, and they need to play with other children. When they can’t play outside or with friends, they can get very frustrated.
Because they don’t yet have words for their emotions, young children express what they feel through their actions. Frustration might show up as tantrums, shouting ‘NO!”, or stamping their feet. This isn’t ‘bad behaviour.’ It’s a young child’s only way to express frustration.
Punishment only makes things worse. Young children don’t understand why playing outside was fine a short time ago, but now it’s not allowed. Or why they suddenly must be so careful about coughing and sneezing. Or why their parents suddenly have no money for treats. Or why their birthday celebration was cancelled. Punishment only adds to their hurt and frustration.
As we move through this crisis, it’s our job to help children understand and learn. This is our opportunity to show them how we can manage our frustration. It’s also our opportunity to help them learn about their feelings by giving their feelings a name. When young children start to realize that their feelings are normal and that we have them too, they can start to learn how to regulate them. Just remember that this takes time – and that they learn how to do this from watching us.
Young children have very limited experience with how the world works. They don’t understand what money is. So, they don’t know why their parents are suddenly so deeply worried. They hear us talk about our fears around job loss, housing and food. They see our anxiety in our faces and hear it in our voices. They might see more arguing between their parents, or even violence. They can’t make sense of it, so they become very frightened.
Young children don’t understand what a virus is or what death is. They just see the frightening images on TV, hear the death counts, and see our reactions. They hear us talking about staying away from people so that we don’t get sick or die. They see our fear of touching things. They hear us say that they could make people sick and even die. If someone close to them does die, they might think they caused that death.
This can be a terrifying time for children because they don’t understand medical science. In fact, most adults are scared because we don’t understand either.
When we’re scared, we seek the comfort of those we think can protect us. Children do this too. They might cling to us and not want to let go. They might not want us to leave them. They’re asking us to keep them safe.
When we can’t control the causes of our anxiety, we can get physically sick, have trouble sleeping, and get upset more easily than usual. This happens to children too. They might get headaches or stomach-aches. They might refuse to go to bed because they’re afraid of being alone in the dark; wake up in the night needing to be held; have nightmares; or wet the bed.
Punishment, like spanking, time-out and taking things away, will add to their fear because it will make them afraid of us. It’s crucial that we do everything possible to ensure that our children feel safe with us. We need to be a stable, reassuring, constant lighthouse in this storm. We must maintain their trust in us by providing Warmth and Structure. We are their protectors.