The pre-school age is a particularly vital stage in a child's development process. This is a skill-gathering phase when kids lay the foundations that will enable them to act independently as efficient social units and individuals.
During early infancy, the neural networks fall into place and a large number of abilities are catalysed through contact with the outside environment as children acquire one capability after another, including motor, cognitive, social, self-regulatory and emotional skills.*
What emotions is your child feeling when they are about to start kindergarten?
Fear and anxiety? Joy and curiosity? Or something else?
Parents can lend their support in two main ways. The first one is without doubt by accepting and embracing the child's feelings, whatever they are. Without judging, without joking or, (even worse), without diminishing the child in any way. Banish all expressions like: “you’re too big to cry” or “what are you scared of?”, or “you should be glad, can you imagine what fun you’ll have playing with other kids?”
Words like this are not only unhelpful, but likely to make children withdraw into their shells because they feel misunderstood or have the impression that grown-ups don't want to know about their emotions.
But what are emotions?
Emotions are a set of bodily responses and may be triggered by external or internal events. The emotional process sets in motion a series of physiological, cognitive, motivational, expressive and behavioural systems that all affect each other.
This means that each one of us reacts to externally or internally-prompted events (like our own thoughts) without necessarily being fully aware of it. Emotions are not a phenomenon that we can govern via an on/off switch. Even adults can be disconcerted by their own emotions and be unable to control them.
So, how is a child supposed to deal with hot tears streaming down their cheeks, knowing that they do not have the ability to stop? How is a child meant to deal with their hearts thumping in their chests and being powerless to change their state of mind?
Grown-ups must refrain from judging and avoid telling children what they should and should not do, limiting themselves rather to gauging how they are feeling. The adult must accept and embrace the child as they are along with their behaviour, striving to understand them.
The second important thing is to be sincere as parents and not to conceal our own emotions.
If your child is about to start kindergarten, how does that make you feel? Worried, happy or frightened?
Share your emotions with your child. There is no point in hiding them because your heart will pound, your hands will sweat or your face will go pale. All these tell-tale signs will let your child know that what you say is at odds with your feelings.
If we want to build a trusting relationship with our children, we must not pretend to be different to what we are. If your child knows that you are afraid of new situations, they will feel free to be scared. And, if a sad scene causes a tear to slip down your cheek, they will not be worried about crying in front of other people.
Remember that children learn to help when they are helped, to judge when they are judged, to accept when they are accepted and to share if others share with them.
It is vital to get the timing right. Not because a child is ever too young or too old (although we will have to adapt what we say and how we say it according to age), but simply because we must grasp that teachable moment that will help us get the right message across.
Now, one may wonder what kind of issues we might come up against?
There is a definite risk of experiencing unfamiliar and unprecedented feelings that have not yet been managed or regulated. This is certainly one of the trickiest aspects. In any case, kindergarten is a fundamental training ground for children as they discover new emotions, learn to recognise them, call them by the right name and, most importantly of all, learn to handle them. But for all this to happen, children must practise first.
All children have their own individuality and potential, which implies their own pace, ways and needs; we must never try to force them to conform to a set model. Quite the opposite, our task is to allow them to express themselves and seek out their own tactics and resources.
How should we behave towards them?
We must never make the mistake of comparing one child to another. Children are little people and, as such, they are unique and inimitable. Our job is quite simply to take care of them without any form of bias and without weighing them down with expectations that are at variance with their own needs.
We must nurture a child like a plant. Perhaps we will need to point them in the right direction or prop them up emotionally, but we must never act in their stead or impose our own dreams on them. Every child has their own dreams, desires and goals to achieve. Let’s give them space and support, creating openings and opportunities so that children everywhere can realise their aspirations!
*Carolina Cittone & Daniela Villani, Catholic University of Milan