Infants and babies fuss and cry because they have needs. Before they have words, babies express themselves through their body language and behaviors. Their emotional state comes out in physical ways. This is part of babies' development. Good parenting involves recognizing and responding to babies' needs consistently and routinely with warmth, patience, and calm. The more a baby is responded to in a time of need or distress by a loving caregiver, the more the baby learns to regulate his/her own emotions. The soothing actions and interventions of parents or caregivers help babies calm and feel better, which promotes attachment, self regulation, and self-esteem. With enough positive responsiveness, babies eventually begin to internalize the comforting behaviors of their parents and learn to sooth themselves.
Even toddlers and older children still express their internal states in physical ways, such as tantrums, crying, kicking, hitting, biting, fussing, etc. They still need parental help and support to regulate their emotions in these times. When parents provide a sense of calm, comfort, warmth, and understanding, children feel secure and safe and are able to work on emotional self-regulation. These interactions do not spoil a child; spoiling a child is giving into a child's demands for one's own relief. When parents give into material requests (e.g., candy, toys, etc.), and do so often, in order to cease a child's behavior, this has the potential to send an unintended message that acting out behaviors beget rewards; it does nothing to promote self-regulation. So, what does a parent do?
Parenting Tips: How to Respond to a Fussy or Upset Child
- Remember that a child's behavior has meaning and that a fussy or upset child is trying to say something, so try to figure out what is motivating the current behavior (e.g., recent change in schedule, sickness, new school, new parental stressor, etc.)
- Respond promptly with a sense of concern, empathy, calm, love, and support
- Provide physical comfort
- Help the child put feelings to words by verbalizing what you see, hear, think, and feel the child is experiencing; this even works with babies and young, non-verbal children
- Try really hard to not be angry; it is ok to feel frustrated and overwhelmed with a child's behaviors but anger at the child for his/her feelings does not promote emotional regulation, instead, it can harbor feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, even for the youngest of infants
- Avoid giving into demands for material things; though this might offer a temporary fix, it does not help the child develop