PERSONAL SPACE IN EMOTIONS
The Montessori philosophy is based on deep consideration for children, as human beings worthy of respect from when they are very young. But among adults there is still a deeply-held idea that children are helpless beings who still have everything to learn from us.
Often, unwittingly and unintentionally, we have an attitude towards them which we might not have towards adults: we interrupt them when they are talking to us, we forget to greet a child who is with an adult (whom instead we promptly greet), and sometimes we ignore them if they have something to say to us, perhaps because we think that what we are busy doing at that moment is very important.
Why do we feel we can do that with a child, whereas with an adult this kind of behaviour would be considered disrespectful?
The reason is that we sometimes feel that because they are little, children are still not perfectly able to understand and don’t have a will of their own, and should therefore be able to adapt to our needs and moods.
We adults expect our children to respect our spaces, and to put up with and understand our mood swings, but how do we behave with our children?
Maria Montessori wrote: “Children are so responsive that if you treat your child with kindness and consideration, he too will be kind. If you let him pursue his own little affairs and interests undisturbed, you will find that he will be less inclined to disturb yours. Try to interfere with him as little as possible, there is no need to worry about him growing up ignorant or ill-mannered. Instead, he will be observant and intelligent, independent and persevering, and these qualities lie at the root of personality. "
(Montessori, Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents, p. 61)
That is why it is vital that every adult should be aware of the importance of educating children over the long term, creating an atmosphere of respect within the home that takes into consideration every member of the family, from the oldest to the youngest without distinction.
Taking a child into consideration means embracing all their behaviours and emotions, including those we like the least and find most challenging, as when they cry hysterically or have a temper tantrum.
When we raise our voice or respond angrily, it’s because we are not able to control our emotions, and yet we are adults!
So is it reasonable to expect children to control theirs, maybe by saying to them: “Don’t cry! Don’t scream! Stop that!”?
It is also important to remember that children learn through their “mirror neurons”: if they see us shouting when we lose our temper, they’ll learn that if they happen to lose their temper that will be the solution.
Can children be trained in emotional self-regulation?
When children first experience strong emotions which they still don’t know how to recognise properly, they may feel as if they are being torn to shreds, and knowing how to self-regulate is a skill we learn through training. Just as we teach children to button up their shirt, we can support them in their emotional self-regulation and also find some strategies with them that may be suited to their individual character and the way they express themselves. This is a process that begins at birth and continues through to adulthood.
Children’s first training definitely comes from observing their parents and the important people in their lives: seeing a parent regulating their own emotions effectively (which doesn’t mean holding them back but expressing them in a positive way) helps them to manage their feelings too, and in time they will be able to regulate them independently.
One our most important tasks as parents is to help our children learn self-regulation skills.
Strategies to restore calm: give the child some space!
Recognising that every child is unique and has his/her own personal characteristics is absolutely key, so something that may work with one child may not necessarily work with another.
One really helpful thing the adult can do is to give them some space!
For all of us, personal space means not only a physical place but also a mental place, where we can collect our thoughts alone, if we so wish, without having to interact with other people.
Giving physical space means knowing how to wait and respecting the fact that the child may choose to go somewhere in the home where they can withdraw and be alone.
There may be times when they don’t want to be hugged and/or forced to “be distracted” by an activity or a toy, just because the adult is convinced that, at that moment, distraction is the right solution for coping with the distress experienced by the child but also by the adult who is with them.
Giving emotional space means allowing the child to feel embraced and not judged when expressing their distress and that they have the possibility of living the emotions they are feeling, without giving negative labels to any of them, and thus truly experiencing them.
Every emotion is both important and necessary, including anger, frustration and fear.
To cope with these, it may be useful to have some “soothing” corners around the home other than their bedroom. This corner should convey a feeling of relaxation. It could be just a carpet with some cushions, a few books, some music, a notebook with a pen and some crayons, where children can go to of their own accord, and not only when told to do so by the adult, in order to give some space to their emotions.
However, this corner or environment should not be interpreted or designated exclusively as a place where the child can calm down or resolve a conflict. That is because every child should be able to find self-regulation first and foremost within themselves and not through a particular object or place, and while these can certainly be helpful, they must not be a requirement.
What does the research tell us about emotional self-regulation?
A study conducted by the Center on Developing Child at Harvard University shows that children’s emotional development is built into the architecture of their brains in response to their personal experiences and the influence of the environments in which they live.
These environments therefore also have a strong impact on their emotional health.
The environment encompasses not only the home and their relationships with their parents but also their daily relations with other significant adults and peers within their shared social community.
The research has also shown that when emotional states are not well managed, a child’s reasoning and thinking skills too can be impaired. The development of cognition is in fact closely interrelated with emotional development because there is a strong interaction between the neural circuits involved in the regulation of emotion and those associated with “executive functions” (such as planning, judgement and decision-making), which are deeply involved in the development of problem-solving skills during preschool years.
It is therefore clear that when emotions are well managed, they also support cognitive development, enabling the proper functioning of our brain, but when these emotions regularly escape our control, they can interfere with attention, cognitive development and the decision-making process.
Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori parla ai genitori, Il leone Verde, 2018
Giacomo Rizzolatti, Lisa Vozza, Nella mente degli altri. Neuroni specchio e comportamento sociale, Zanichelli, 2007
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Lo sviluppo emotivo dei bambini è integrato nell'architettura del loro cervello: documento di lavoro n. 2
Maria Montessori, Il bambino in famiglia, Garzanti, 2000