–Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Infants and toddlers who experienced neglect, changes in caregivers, or early medical pain or hospitalizations suffer great consequences for a situation that the children did not choose for themselves. Children who lived with constant emotional distress early in life end up without the capacity to manage even small amounts of emotions, and they become quickly overwhelmed by even the normal stressors of day-to-day life.

UCLA professor Alan Schore has explained that infants are emotional beings, with very little ability to self-soothe.  Infants depend upon their parents to help them manage their day-to-day distress, which helps wire their brain for self-soothing over time.

Parents provide infants with the comfort they cannot provide for themselves. Over time, nurtured infants learn from their parents and begin to trust that they will be OK, even when life is a bit stressful.  However, the young child who has never experienced emotional safety has no idea how to manage his feelings. This child grows up either shutting down or melting down when distressed.

Emotional deprivation impacts development. Without nurturing and loving attention, children veer away from the typical trajectory for emotional development.  Without emotional support and assistance, age-appropriate “emotional muscles” remain underdeveloped.

Punishing children for “meltdowns” or “shut downs” does nothing to help them get better.  Helping dysregulated children function better requires extreme patience and a calming, soothing approach.  The change does not happen overnight.  Helping upset children ride out their feelings, staying present to them, talking things through with them, and helping them problem-solve requires extensive time and patience.

Staying calm in the face of a child’s aggressive meltdowns is counter-intuitive. It will drain your energy and time. Don’t try to do it alone. Get assistance, find support, and take care of yourself and your relationships.  The pay-off is a better future for your child and improved quality of life for you and your family. The time and energy you put into healing your child is an investment you will never regret.