Last month, Kate Middleton launched the new campaign Shaping Us to raise awareness around the importance of the first five years of a child’s life. The campaign aims to make early childhood development one of the most strategically important topics of our time.
The pre-five years are the building blocks for a child’s emotional and psychological well-being, as well as connection and attunement with the family.
Here are seven ways parents can support their little ones during this critical developmental time:
Build a connection with your child
Connecting with your child may sound obvious but it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Smartphones, work commitments and busy life schedules pull parents in all different directions, creating barriers to connection.
It’s really important to take time to talk to your child and, most importantly, take in what they have to say with active listening skills. Avoid rushing onto the next question or task and truly listen to what they have to say. Gently repeat what your child’s said so they understand that, firstly, you’ve heard them and secondly, you’re validating them.
When you show you’re listening to the small things your child says, they are more likely to share the bigger and more important things with you when they get older.
Mirror your child’s actions and sounds
When we mirror the actions of a child, it helps them to feel accepted and wanted. If your little one is bringing a great big smile to you when they’ve woken up from a nap, mirror that smile back to them. If your child is looking at you intently, hold that and look right back into their eyes.
Attune to your child’s needs
Attunement is not a matter of being a mind reader but it is a matter of getting to know, and being able to anticipate our child’s needs. The building blocks of attunement come from being able to respond appropriately to the things children need in their early years, such as being warm, being fed on time, getting enough sleep and having a routine. When you are attuned, you create a place of safety for your child.
Provide consistency for your child
Consistency, in all aspects, is really important for a child’s mental health. Surrounding a child with inconsistent messages can be problematic. Let’s take this common scenario as an example: a child really wants a new toy from the shop, the parent says no, the child screams uncomfortably, and the parent then reverses their decision and allows the child to have the toy. Parents often don’t do this to appease the child (although it does) it usually happens because the parent doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable at the moment.
However, this key change can be problematic. Firstly, this inconsistency undermines your decision-making role as a parent, secondly, it allows the child the piece of teaching that says, “If I scream then I get what I want”, thirdly, it demolishes trust in consistency. To some degree, the child will feel they have become the decision maker and it can be scary for a little person to think they hold that much power.
Allow your child to be a child
Support your child with the development of their intelligence, curiosity and creativity but allow them to be a child through all of this. Children do not have the capacity for the adult world and it’s important not to share things with them that are outside of their capabilities.
Avoid the temptation to share negative thinking with your little one, for example, “mummy’s being stupid” or “daddy’s got that wrong again”. They don’t need to be exposed to these feelings, it is adult business and should be kept well away from them. Children do not have the capacity to moderate adult behaviour and that includes drinking alcohol and smoking. If you do enjoy a glass of wine or smoke cigarettes, make sure this is done in adult time and away from little people.
Allow your child to feel their emotions
Children quite often have very big feelings and those feelings are sometimes too big for their own bodies. It’s OK for your child to be really angry and sad and throw themselves around on the floor. As long as they are safe and are not putting themselves in danger, allow them to feel their emotions and be there with loving, gentle kindness ready to provide the right level of soothing support for them afterwards. There’s no need to go in and fix everything they feel.
Your little one will model the kindness they see from you in your actions and behaviours. Remember that what your child sees or hears from you is what they will reproduce. If, for example, you are showing physical and verbal aggression at someone who has taken your parking space, your child will model and copy that behaviour. It’s important we try to have a kind and gentle outlook on the way we conduct ourselves in all of our interactions.
Fiona Yassin is a psychotherapist, founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic