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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The low-down

So, a while ago I mentioned a report I was doing for school and that I would share it once it was done... this be that!

What are the factors that impact the emotional wellbeing of a child under 5, and what can parents do to support it?

Emotional wellbeing includes happiness and satisfaction, effective social functioning, and the dispositions of optimism, openness, curiosity and resilience[1]. Positive wellbeing results from the satisfaction of basic needs such as: tenderness and affection; security and clarity; social recognition; feelings of competence; and meaning in life. It influences the way children react to their environment and can be affected by their experiences in early childhood. Sound wellbeing may be evident in a child who: is resilient and has the ability to persevere; can cope with day-to-day stress; shows trust and confidence in others; can acknowledge and accept affirmation; can cooperate and work with others; is able to spend some time alone happily; can accept new challenges and find new ways of doing difficult tasks; will assert their independence; is considerate of others; and is able to empathise with another person’s emotions.[2]

There are many factors that impact the emotional wellbeing of a child under 5. There are some, however, that will have a more significant impact during childhood and throughout life than others. Some of these key factors are: attachment in a secure relationship with a caring adult[3], opportunities for exploration and learning[4], social interaction with peers, and routines. These factors, or lack thereof, shape a child’s view of the world as well as their perception of their place and value in it. Parents and/or primary carers have just as important a role to play in their child’s emotional development as they do in ensuring their child’s physical wellbeing. The first five years of life are the most critical time for this to take place[5]. With the proper understanding, parents can empower their children to be confident, resilient, and powerful people – now and in the future.

Parents can support their child’s emotional development by developing a secure attachment with their child/ren. In a survey entitled ‘Emotional Development’[6], participants were asked which factor they considered most important to a child’s emotional wellbeing. 100% of parents and professionals working with children stated an opinion that the most important factor to a child’s wellbeing was ‘security in relationships with one or more caring adults and the security of their environment’. Children learn and develop most in a relationship with a trusted adult. A parent’s role is to support their children in their desire to explore, by encouraging them to go out and learn about their surroundings while keeping them safe[7]. Parents also need to be welcoming when their children want to be close because they are hurt, frightened, or simply wanting time to be with and connect with the parent.

A child who senses that their parent is uncomfortable with their exploration may feel that it is unsafe to explore or that they need to stay close in order to please their parent[8]. This limits their ability to learn and develop important skills that also benefit their emotional wellbeing. Conversely, a parent who encourages their child to explore while watching over them to ensure that they are safe, enables their child to explore and learn new skills without fear for their safety or the loss of relationship with their parent. This naturally leads to higher levels of self-esteem and a sense of safety, both of which will impact positively on a child’s emotional wellbeing.

A child who senses that their parent is uncomfortable with their need for comfort or relationship learns to hide their need, and will continue trying to deal with unsettling feelings they don’t understand in order to protect their relationship with the parent. This creates great anxiety for the child. Parents who can welcome and be with their child to help them understand their emotions teach them that feelings can be shared, understood, and don’t have to be scary. These children will learn in time to regulate and cope with their own emotions after they have done so with the support of their parents[9].

Providing opportunities for a child to explore and learn is a way that parents can support their child’s emotional development. A child’s exploration and learning can also be an opportunity for children to develop dispositions – or habits of mind – that assist learning and development throughout life. According to a resource commissioned by the Government of South Australia, ‘Dispositions for Learning. Workbook for Learning Together Families’ the dispositions are: curiosity, cooperativeness, confidence, resourcefulness, purposefulness and persistence, and communicativeness. Parents can assist the development of these dispositions by: allowing their child to explore their surroundings and answering verbal and non-verbal questions about what the child sees, allowing children to participate in household work and establish routines that allow their child to initiate things that they know will occur[10], encouraging their children to keep trying and/or find new ways of completing a difficult task, taking time to listen to their children, and allowing them to use any communication skills they have developed to communicate with their parent or carer.

Parents can support their child’s emotional wellbeing by developing a routine for their child[11]. This fosters a sense of security for the child as they learn to predict what is going to happen, and it increases their sense of independence and value as they are then able and allowed to participate in it. Routines also support children to develop valuable skills, referred to previously as ‘dispositions’[12], that will assist them throughout life and have a positive impact on their emotional wellbeing. When participating in routines, children will hear and begin to use familiar language that enhance their communication skills, they learn the value of cooperating and participating, and they gain confidence as well as demonstrating the value of persistence when their ability to do the task improves[13]. Parents who have predictable routines for their children are supporting their child’s emotional wellbeing.

Parents can also support their child’s emotional wellbeing by facilitating opportunities for positive social interaction with peers. In the emotional development survey previously mentioned, one participant noted that while they considered security in relationships with a trusted adult and the safety of their environment to be the most important factor in a child’s emotional wellbeing, “it is also important for children to interact with peers and to have opportunities for exploration and learning within a safe and secure environment.” Parents do have a role to play in their child’s social interactions that will support that child’s emotional wellbeing. Young children are still developing social skills, and parents need to be present to intervene when conflict arises. For example, a parent can help a child understand that although they may wish to play with the toy their young friend is holding, snatching is not appropriate and they need to take turns. In doing so the parent acknowledges their child’s emotion, while limiting unacceptable behaviour[14]. In this instance, the child learns about turn taking – another aspect of cooperation – and also learns that they need and are increasingly able to control their impulsive desires. This is an important skill that supports their emotional wellbeing and will be needed throughout life as they attend school and enter the workforce.

There are many factors that influence the emotional wellbeing of children, and parents have a critical role in supporting that positive emotional development. In the ‘Emotional Development’ survey, participants were asked, “Do you feel that there are sufficient resources for parents and carers about the role of adults in the emotional wellbeing of children.” While 51% of participants responded ‘yes’, some who responded ‘no’ offered the following explanations of their choice: “Many parents I have worked with have shown concern for their own knowledge about caring for their child, and have asked for advice.” “We are unable to reach all parents.” “Parents who struggle to recognise their role in developing secure attachments should be offered more one on one practical support”.

In decades past, understanding and information about emotional development was limited and parents did not have access to thorough and reliable information about their child or children’s emotional development[15]. This is something that we can and need to change for the future, because parents and primary carers do have a significant impact on the emotional wellbeing of children in their care. Equipped with understanding and practical support regarding the specific things they can do to influence the emotional development of children, this impact can be a positive one that empowers those in their care - now and in the future.



[1] Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, Belonging, Being & Becoming
[2] Ibid
[3] Cooper, Hoffman, Marvin and Powell, Circle of Security, 2000
[4] Dispositions for Learning. Workbook for Learning Together families, 2010, Government of South Australia, Department of Education and Children’s Services
[5] From ‘Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story’. A national project on behalf of the Ministerial Council for Education; Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs, published 2010
[6] Hutchings, T 2013, Emotional Development, <http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8KL9J7X>
[7] Cooper, Hoffman, Marvin and Powell, Circle of Security, 2000
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Government of South Australia, Department of Health, 2010, Parent easy guide 51 - Growing and learning in the family
[11] ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, Love, Learning, and Routines
[12] Dispositions for Learning. Workbook for Learning Together Families, 2010, Government of South Australia, Department of Health
[13] Ibid
[14] Ginott, H.G, Ginott, A, Goddard, H.W, 2003, Between Parent and Child, Three Rivers Press, New York

[15] Ibid

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