Dad for Beginners

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The Emotional Continuum of a Small Child


By far one of the most challenging aspects of having a child is adapting to the hail storm of emotions coming at you from every angle. There are tidal waves of emotions from the moment the baby is born and continuing throughout the rest of their life. The emotional reactions of children are often more extreme and intensified than those of adults because children cannot speak and articulate as well and are also experiencing everything for the first time. The level of tolerance and understanding a new parent must possess in emotional situations is the highest it will ever be, as the emotional outbursts of children are like nothing else in existence.

The first and most frequently occurring emotion to be prepared for is rage. The reason this is top on the list is because at any point, literally any other type of emotion can cease abruptly and spiral into rage. For many men who have been married for any length of time, you’re already aware of how rage can manifest from virtually nothing at all. The same applies to kids. Because being a baby or toddler has vocal and physical limitations, frustration of any form can quickly transform into unbridled rage that is seemingly endless. There are limited ways to console rage as often times babies and toddlers become so enveloped in sheer anger that they practically stop breathing. Dealing with a fury of infant or toddler rage does not have an immediate solution. There will be, just like in any angry adult, a break in the fit and a cool down period. There is little the parent can do in these situations.

Another relatively frequent emotion that children experience is frustration. Frustration is different from rage because frustration reveals itself most often when a child cannot accomplish something. For example, small children are wiggly and mobile but lack the ability to walk. Once they gain the bipedalism, they are still awkward and lack the ability to run. Once they master the running, they’re still new to it and fall down a lot. All of these examples are intervals where frustration sets in. Again, similarly to rage there is little that a parent can do to cool down the frustration. The ability to be a calm and collected role model and not a total spaz is perhaps the most effective way to show your child that not only do you support them but that you’re impervious to the ambient effects of their frustration. By remaining so aloof that you’re barely even present you can help your child figure things out on their own which will better help them overcome frustration in the future and prepare them remarkably well for adulthood where no one helps anyone in a positive way ever.

A lesser realized but ever-present emotion children experience is fatigue. Fatigue is commonly interpreted as rage or frustration because the symptoms present as anger and annoyance when really the kid is just tired. Being a baby is exhausting work because coupled with all the brain development, physical growth, and material-based learning is just the daily task of being totally helpless and dependent on another form of life to keep you going. Babies and small children sleep a lot and missing these periods of sleep quickly leads to fatigue which is reinterpreted as something else by the parent due to the environment. For example, a shrill, screaming baby can be any of the aforementioned emotional states at any moment but the vast majority of the time they are just tired. If being an adult has taught you anything, you should be well aware that crying is ok and a nap cures almost anything. The same applies for babies. While later in life adults don’t typically consider fatigue to be an emotion because it’s really more of a physical state of exhaustion, fatigue in children is present so often that it needs to be treated with a proper emotional response. The trick is that children do not recognize how much they need and enjoy sleep and they fight it at every available juncture. The silver lining for parents is that children enjoy sleeping so much that once they’re actually asleep they will stay that way for hours on end and you too can do what you do best anyway, nap.

The final emotion that occurs with predictable frequency in children is joy. Babies and young children get elated extremely quickly much like dogs or inebriated college men at a karaoke. The elation escalates quickly, so quickly in fact, that children are often reduced to a series of voluminous yelps and squeaks that should be interpreted as overwhelming happiness. The attention span of a child lengthens in these instances until the stimulus causing their joy is totally used up and expired. A good example of this is a child’s natural attraction to fire. Young children find fire (i.e. burning candle, campfire) absolutely fascinating and will do nothing but shout joyously while watching the flames for literally hours on end until the fire extinguishes itself, even if that takes multiple days to occur. Pure, unencumbered happiness is probably the only childhood emotion that can veil all other emotions simultaneously. At times parents will be endlessly frustrated at how short a child’s general attention span is but when the stimulus of said attention sparks the joy emotion, a child will be engaged for hours on end.

The emotional experiences of children occur with greater unpredictability and are far more intense. However it is a reminder of how emotion is designed to be experienced because it is raw and unrefined. As children age they slowly learn how to better handle, disguise, and repress their emotions just like adults and while that provides some relief from the intensity of each emotional reaction, it’s actually the saddest change in all of childhood.

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