Originally answered on Quora...
"What should I do if my child won't stop screaming because I don't buy him some toys in the store?"
Emotions are so great... once you know how to use them.
When I grew up...
I was taught to suppress uncomfortable emotions like anger, frustration, sadness and desire - which was stupendously unhelpful.
Please, please do not do this to your kids.
But ... as a result of that complete lack of emotional self-knowledge, I've spent a good chunk of my adult life learning what emotions are.
I had to learn...
- why emotions exist, and what my mammal brain is trying to tell me
- why emotions feel so intense - especially when I try to ignore them
- the underlying mechanics of certain emotions, in particular neurotransmitters such as dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, and serotonin
- why emotions are an essential part of thought and decision-making
- why emotional intuition is so trustworthy, when it's properly trained
- and much more. I'm still learning, every day.
Why Understanding Your Own Emotions Helps You as a Parent
By the time I had my own young kids, I had a much better grip on not just what emotions are, but how to explain them to people who are struggling with them.
And, as my understanding of my own emotions grows, I notice my parenting skills grow with it.
If I see my sons or daughters feeling a strong emotional reaction towards something they see & want, I think that’s awesome. They’re learning to experience and process emotions like desire ( the neurotransmitter dopamine ) and frustration.
Instead of trying to figure out how to “fix” that emotion and make their tantrum-reaction go away - I try to figure out how to help them use it to process their world, make their decisions, and fuel their motivations.
In a vague sense, that looks something like this-
0 to 1 years old
I simply notice their emotion, and make them aware that I’ve seen it. “OK honey I’m coming…” For my child, who has no idea what this emotional-pain-thing is, they get to relax a bit knowing that their communication of unhappiness has been achieved. Diapers, cuddles, bottles, tickle time, etc are forthcoming.
Here I feel the best response is to let them feel the emotion and sit with it just a tiny bit. I want them to learn that emotions generate sensations which don’t harm them. For an newborn, I imagine something like 10 seconds is perfect. For a 1 year old, a few minutes.
1 to 3 years old
I notice their distress, and I observe what they’re distressed about - which is usually more obvious at this point. Then I bring their attention away from that outside thing, to the emotion itself. “What are you feeling right now?” and “Why do you feel that way?” Or, if they are at the earliest stages of language, “do you feel sad?”
When they learn that what they’re feeling is 100% inside them, and actually has very little to do with what’s going outside of them, then they learn to dis-associate the two.
The pain isn’t coming from the toy they don’t own yet. The pain isn’t coming from Dad not pulling out his credit card. The pain is inside, and it’s called “I want.” Not getting that toy is not going to harm them, even though their dopamine is telling them they NEED IT NOW.
This is a critical period, where they are learning 3 essential skills;
- emotional awareness - the realization that the pain they are feeling is from their emotions, rather than the outside situation / person.
- emotional identification - an understanding of which emotions they are feeling. Fear, loneliness, anger, desire, are all different things designed to inspire different actions.
- emotional self-control - the ability to direct their attention towards resolving and understanding the emotion itself first.
3 to 6 years old
I let them identify what they want. If the previous lessons have been learned, then at this point, it’s more of a discussion than a tantrum. “Daddy, I like that toy.” Good, emotional self-control achieved...
Now I want them to use that emotional motivation to develop self-responsibility. “Hey that’s a nice toy Nicholas! I like your choice. Should we do some jobs together at home and save up some money for it?”
You want something? Great! What are you going to do about it?
I’m an entrepreneur, so I like to teach my kids self-responsibility all the way. I’ll help them find the solution to any problem, but I try hard to resist the temptation to solve it for them.
But, I think allowance works too - if you keep it reasonable. They get to learn money-management skills, and how to prioritize their wants. Don't hand your kids a credit card- you're robbing them of self-responsibility and the ability to choose their priorities.
6 to 10 years old
If they’ve mastered the other lessons, there’s really nothing for you to do here. You can just further reinforce what they’ve already learned.
They know how to deal with desire. They know they can have what they want, if they are willing to work for it. Which means the only question is… “do I want to work hard enough to get this?”
You can help them develop this sense of perspective and discernment, by asking leading questions. “Do you think you can find a better price on eBay?” Or… “That looks a bit fragile, like it might break easily- can you find a better one?” And of course if it’s a big special thing- “Is that what you would like for your birthday?”
Among my proudest moments as a dad are the occasions when my kids see something they like - and then they calmly ask “dad can I look at that toy?” Then they would carefully check the quality. They’d check the price. They’d carefully read the features, determine the fun level… and decide if it’s worth it. I didn’t teach them any of that. I didn’t have to. They did it because they had some skin in the game, and had developed some understanding of work, and value.
And… interestingly, I’ve noticed that when they work for and buy something they like, they really take care of it, and really enjoy it. There's a much deeper sense of pride, and appreciation, for the things in their life.
The perspective I like to take on parenting is this…
I’m not “managing kids.” I’m creating adults. Everything I do has that in mind. So far, I think it’s working…
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