Learning to manage one’s emotions

There are many things I am noticing as a parent now, that I don’t think I had the perspective or time to notice the first time I parented a small child, nearly 30 years ago.  One of those things, that I’m peculiarly attuned to at the moment is the development, in our boys, of the ability to recognize and handle anger, fear, sadness – all the “negative” emotions.

For one thing, I do think that my daughter was, and is, a bit unusual in her ability to control her emotions – she’s a very stable person, and it seemed like nothing ever really shook her.  I’m sure things did get to her, but, by and large, she seems to move into and through life with a degree of stability and acceptance that I admire (and that has, at times, driven me a bit crazy, as well!).

Now, S (our 5yo, not the 29yo!) is a kid who wears his heart on his sleeve.  You always know how he feels!! When we first came home from Ethiopia, he was happy and laughing about 95% of the time, with occasional, violent temper-tantrums, occurring at first, approximately weekly, and then, over time, dropping in frequency to the point where, now, it’s very rare that he truly loses it the way he used to do.  These tantrums were true “fits” – it was like he was taken over, “possessed” by his emotion, and he was powerless to turn it off, and we were powerless to help him.  Poor Miss Rori, his teacher when he first started preschool almost exactly a year ago, has vivid memories of that first tantrum he threw at school!!

J, our 3yo, in contrast, was the most docile, gentle child imaginable – rarely in a bad mood, and very easy-going.  As he has developed language over the past year, he has, of course, started asserting himself more – developing a sense of humor, and also developing a temper.  The amazing thing to me about him, though, is that he seems to have control over his temper that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a toddler – he can be wailing miserably about some real or perceived injury, physical or otherwise, and you can say to him “J, stop crying, I can’t understand you”, and he stops immediately, explains what’s troubling him, and then, depending on what the issue is, he may resume screaming!!  But, he can literally turn it off on command!!  He also seems to know whether he gotten over the emotion, and can verbalize that – he will say “I still crying”, if we seem to have moved on, and not fully acknowledged his pain to his satisfaction or he wants more comforting, or he’ll say “I not crying anymore”, to assure us that we can move on (or not give him the Time-Out that we were threatening).  It’s terribly cute, especially as he really can’t pronounce the letter “r”, so it comes out “I still c-ying”.

So, these boys share 25% of their genes (if my recollection of meiosis at 4am is accurate) – is this difference in their ability to manage their emotions due to Nature, or Nurture??  Is S less able to handle stress because he’s seen more sadness/trauma in his short life (he certainly had more awareness of the loss of their parents, and the changes in their circumstances than J had the capacity to be, just given the age difference), or is it a hard-wiring phenomenon – a basic difference in the way their brains work?  We’ll never know.  Our challenge, as their parents, is to help S get a better understanding of his emotions, and, for J, I just love that he is so in touch, but maybe he’s TOO in control, and our job with him, as he develops, will be to help him let go a little more.

This is one of the many things that I am noticing as such a distinction between raising an only child (my daughter), with no other reference point to gauge what’s developing, and raising siblings.  I recall hearing an interview in the past year or so about the dynamic of pairs of siblings needing to carve out their unique identities – so that in a pair of two brothers, or two sisters like my sister and me, each goes in practically the opposite direction as far as temperament, interests, and talents – so maybe this phenomenon of their two styles of coping is another element of that individuation.

2 thoughts on “Learning to manage one’s emotions

  1. Morah Mary says:

    Interesting topic.

    My almost-30 yr old was a preemie – spent over 2 wks in the neonatal ICU at GWUHosp. Nurses there told us that each child – some born as much as 3 mos before their due date – responded very differently to stimuli in the NICU. One fought the injections, one wimpered, another learned that dislocating his leads resulted in people coming over to check on his, etc. After spending time in the unit, I could see the differences in personalities, as well.

    I'm one of six kids – no two of us responded the same way to any specific situation. Born to the same parents, living in the same household (of course not exactly the same because of the addition of new siblings, etc) – our responses varied incredibly.

    I guess I tend towards "hard-wiring" modified by environmental factors (both nature and nurture) and, over time, what "works" and "what doesn't."

    1. Janaki says:

      what a coincidence! My almost-30yr old was a preemie as well – born 3 months before her due date, and spending 4 months in the NICU. She was a trooper during that time – and displayed a bit of stubbornness (although, of course, her refusal to gain weight as quickly as I wanted her to wasn't purposeful on her part, even though it seemed that way!)

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