Parker had to wear her Batman Shirt today!Creative Commons License Dustin McClure via Compfight

Being able to reflect accurately what a child is feeling is crucial to his or her emotional development.

When Aaron was a small child and I was able to match his passionate and enthusiastic approach to the world, the results were magical. There were definitely times when his activity level was way beyond my ability to cope, but when I was prepared and he was ready, everyone around him benefited. One day shortly after he learned to walk, we bought him a new pair of shoes. My boys always felt that special shoes adorned with light and sound and named after their up-to-the-minute superhero had the power to make them run faster and jump higher. Aaron and I sat waiting in the doctor’s office, and he indicated that he wanted to try on his new shoes. So we got them out and put them on. He walked around that office, kicking out his legs, stomping his feet, and walking as fast as his little legs could go, bringing light and laughter to everyone in that waiting room. We were a perfect match that day.

Matching emotion involves exactly what springs to your mind. It means that we make our emotion not identical but very similar to that of our child. Let’s say that a toddler and her mother are playing in the park. The little girl comes running to her mother, bouncing high into the air a brightly colored ball as big as her head. She throws both arms up and watches the ball with delight. The mother throws her arms up also and says, “Wheee!” They smile at each other and laugh with pleasure.

How reinforcing this is to the child! The little girl is reveling in her newfound motor skills. She can bounce that ball and bounce it high. She is curious about the exciting world of bouncing balls and thrilled about what she is learning. It’s fun and wonderful. And it is even better when she can share it with her beloved mother. It will give the experience deeper meaning and confirm that it is as good as she believes it to be. But she does not just want to show her mother. She wants to share with her mother, to know that her mother is enjoying it too.

How can she know this? Since language is not yet fully available to the little girl, her mother conveys her excitement and enjoyment in other ways. She matches her child’s enthusiasm. She doesn’t necessarily play, although she could. But throwing her arms in the air and saying “Wheee” in an excited voice lets her daughter know very clearly that she appreciates how high the ball can bounce. She is not doing the activity, but she is participating in the experience and matching her daughter’s zeal.

This incident could go a number of different ways. Suppose the mother is tired and preoccupied. The heavy traffic on the nearby street is worrying her. She needs to get home in time to get ready for work or fix lunch for her older children. The little girl bounces the ball gleefully. Her mother looks at her and says nothing. Maybe she tells her daughter that they have to leave. The child’s face falls. She runs after the ball and bounces it again as hard as she can. “Too late for that. I told you we only had an hour to play. It’s time to go.”

Perhaps it is the father who is watching his daughter. She bounces the ball, and he runs after it. He decides to see if he can throw it across the creek. The little girl runs after him, excited that he is playing with her. But he doesn’t throw it back to her and she can’t get it. It is his game now. She is awestruck by his ability but she can’t participate. She sits down and, unaccountably, begins to cry.

Situations like this occur over and over in a child’s life. Depending on how parents respond most of the time these seemingly minor experiences will determine how the child develops and progresses. If the parent usually shares emotionally in the child’s excitement about continuous new discoveries, the child will associate her development with the love and approval of parents.

If the child meets constant disapproval or lack of response she may react in a number of ways. She may withdraw, attempting little that requires her own initiative. She may become hyperactive in an attempt to gain her parent’s attention. She may “show off” at every opportunity or may compensate by becoming an extremely skilled “over-achiever.” But her achievements will have a hollow feel. There will be a sense of loneliness because there is no loving person with whom to share her successes.

Ironically, if parents react too zealously to what the child is doing, it may feel as if they are taking away the child’s offering and appropriating it for themselves. By throwing the ball across the creek, the father made the activity his own in a way that did not involve the child. This doesn’t mean that we can’t teach our child ways to improve her skills. But especially when a child is young we need to spend a lot of time matching her initiatives—that is, meeting her at the level of excitement that she brings to the new world she is discovering.

We match the emotions of older children when we share their interests and offer genuine support and enthusiasm for their activities. When we share our own hobbies and activities, our children often pick up on them, providing their own creative twists and turns. They love to imitate us.

It’s very satisfying when they do, but we shouldn’t force them to be like us. We must observe their temperaments and proclivities and try to find opportunities that fit. When they choose to do something that we also love, it’s incredibly gratifying to them and to us.

Tune in next time for another critical factor: helping children manage or regulate their emotions.