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Repairing Our Child’s Emotional Age

“How old is your daughter?” I have heard that question asked many times over the last 14 years.  I have to admit that this question has stumped me from time to time.  While I can answer the question as to chronological age, her emotional age is what makes answering the question more complicated.  She is at once 2, 4, 6, 10, 12, 15, and even 20 at times.

What is emotional age?  For children who have lost a primary caretaker, a birth mother, a foster parent, spent time in an orphanage, been cared for in an incubator for any length of time, or have been cared for by inadequate, preoccupied, or overwhelmed parents, emotional age is a stark reality.  Infants are sensory beings, thinking in terms of basic needs.  Food, warmth, being held, being dry, and comfort are the basic building blocks for the newborn.  If those needs are not met right away, they are wired to express their displeasure immediately and loudly.  If those needs continue to be unmet, the infant may continue to cry or they may shut down and stop trying to get someone’s attention.

As the child grows, if stages of emotional growth are missed or needs are being consistently unmet, the opportunities to catch up may be delayed.  Sometimes years may ensue before the opportunities present themselves again.  Therefore, a 10 year old may be seen screaming and crying at the checkout counter at Walmart because they didn’t get a candy bar.  Yelling at the child to grow up and act their age is useless.  At the time this is occurring, the child is truly feeling 2 years old and something has gone awry during the course of that day to create a feeling of unmet need.

As a social worker, I have been asked many times what works best when a child is stuck in a younger stage.  The best advice I can give is to parent the child at the age level they are displaying at the time.  A foster parent once called me frantic, asking me what to do about her foster child who was 13 and was outside on the ground kicking and screaming.  The foster mother stated that the young lady was acting about 3 years old.  I suggested she parent the 3 year old by going out and sitting on the ground and holding the “young child” and giving her a cookie.  She called me back 30 minutes later to report that it had worked wonders and the young lady was again a self-absorbed fashion conscious 13 year old.  Moral of the story; when a child has missed a stage, they will often have a lapse back in time (given their history, this will happen quite a few times) and if you as a parent can back up with them and be the parent they need at that time, they will tend to grow back up faster when the need has been met.  A hug and a cookie may not be the solution for all children or for some children all the time.  Come back next week for other options to the regression issue.

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