Children's Emotional Growth: Adult's Role as Emotional Archaeologists

By Dettore, Ernie | Childhood Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Children's Emotional Growth: Adult's Role as Emotional Archaeologists


Dettore, Ernie, Childhood Education


"What if a bad person digs a tunnel out of jail and comes to get me?"

"Are monsters under my bed?"

"Is the doctor's needle going to hurt?"

"Am I going to get shot like my cousin?"

"Is Mommy ever coming back?"

"Will Daddy hurt me like he hurts Mommy?"

"What if somebody hits my house with an airplane?"

These questions represent the range of fears that young children routinely face today. Young children are at risk of being overwhelmed by emotional situations, and they seek reassurance on these issues from the adults in their lives. Adults must respond to children's questions thoughtfully, because their responses may affect young children's lives in both the short and the long run (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000).

Whether children's concerns stem from typically developing fears, or are triggered by disturbing images they see in everyday life or on television, their questions require understanding from the important adults in their lives and responses that will help the children grow emotionally. As many young children spend a large part of their days in child care programs, the care providers become very important figures in the children's lives and have a significant effect on healthy emotional development. Unfortunately, not enough adults who work in early childhood programs in the United States have the requisite knowledge of classroom management, communication and interpersonal skills, and child development, thereby contributing to the burgeoning problem of young children's emotional overload.

This article discusses adults' role in children's emotional development, focusing on ways that adults can help young children identify and communicate their feelings, become attuned to and accepting of the ways young children approach and deal with emotional issues, and provide environments that enable young children to express their feelings.

What Is Emotional Development?

Theorists and researchers have approached the study of emotional development from different perspectives. Henniger (1999) wrote, "Emotional development in young children consists of a gradual growth in the ability to recognize, label, and appropriately respond to their feelings. Each of these steps is important to their emotional health and must be learned through repeated interactions with others" (p. 340). Unique to the study of emotional development and related to the philosophical underpinnings of constructivism is the structural developmental model of Alan Sroufe (1996). In this model, Sroufe proceeds from the premise that emotional development is tied to changes in other domains of development, including the neurophysiological, cognitive, and social realms. Sroufe (1996) proposes a working definition of emotion as "a subjective reaction to a salient event, characterized by physiological, experiential, and overt behavior change" (p.16). As such, emotions serve adaptive functions as children attempt to adjust themselves to their social communities. These functions include the ability to communicate inner states, respond to emerging situations, and master their environments. For adults to facilitate such growth, they must first realize the intrinsic nature of children's emotional development and its impact on all areas of development.

The Adult As an Emotional Archaeologist.

The television personality known as Mister Rogers once called himself an "emotional archaeologist." Like an archaeologist, the adults in children's lives need to "collect" information about children. As they gather data, the adults "meet" children at their developmental levels, joining them in creating meaning from this information. Adults need to dig for clues, dust off implications observed in children's dramatic play, scrutinize evidence found in child-to-child interactions, interpret information shared by parents and children, and collect samples of child-created products (Dettore & Cleary, 1997/1998). …

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