PROVO — The baby girl sits in a highchair, cooing and chirping at her mother, who playfully touches the baby's feet and hands and mirrors the baby's excited smile. After a few minutes, researchers instruct the mother to look at her child, but no longer smile or respond.
The baby begins to smile and gesture as before, yet when mom sits there blankly, the child puts both hands in the air as if to say, "What's going on?" A few seconds later, the baby screeches at the mother and begins to fuss and cry, arching her back in the chair.
The mother is allowed to respond again and the baby is instantly soothed as the mother talks, touches and smiles at her.
"It's a vivid illustration of how the emotions are the language of early human connection," explained Ross A. Thompson, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis and an expert on parent-child relationships, early moral development and emotional attachment.
Thompson is within a group of scholars who are finding more and more evidence that children have far greater emotional breadth and depth than once believed.
"We're now understanding how emotions are the constructive foundations for achievements we care about, including morality, self-understanding and compassion for others," Thompson said, adding that young children's first links to other people are through emotions.
Without proper guidance to help children understand and process emotions, they begin to flounder and can suffer impaired development — what mental health professionals are calling a rapidly growing problem.
"The conclusion that young children can have serious emotional problems is new news to most of us … (except) those who work with children in these settings," Thompson said. "The good news … is that we know there are promising forms of assistance. For supportive strategies, intervention and treatment that begins in early childhood, the brain is still plastic and can respond with some resilience."
The emotional child
Decades ago, it was thought that children's emotional responses were like a duck's — stress and anger simply rolled off their backs, like water.
"We used to think that children were untouched through trouble," Thompson said recently at BYU. "Although they can express their rage, sadness, their fear, and sometimes their joy, with great intensity, they recover quickly and within minutes it seems are ready to go back to play."
Yet, data show children are not so carefree. Roughly 10 percent of children in kindergarten exhibit disruptive emotional or behavioral problems, Thompson said. For low-income children, that number doubles or even triples.
In fact, a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics, by Dr. Jane Meschan Foy for the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Mental Health, showed that in the United States, between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children from birth to age 5 experience social-emotional problems that cause suffering and affect functioning.
"Children are not born with Teflon coating," said Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of The Children's Center in Salt Lake City, which provides mental health care for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. "The resilience actually comes from having a secure relationship. So if something happens and they lose that, we're going to lose the resilience."
Each year, the center sees nearly 1,800 families, many whose children are struggling through severe trauma, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, instability and violence in their homes and neighborhoods and even economic stress in the family.
"As a result, the children respond to these things with anxiety, much the same way adults do," he said. "It's a very serious problem."
The team of therapists at the center teaches parents about the importance of relationships rather than focusing on good or bad parenting techniques. And when parents express worries that they alone caused the problem, Goldsmith assures them it's not that simple.
While parents are instructed, children at the center learn how to identify and gain control of their emotions, how to play effectively with other children, and how to prepare for school.
The center aggressively pursues therapy before turning to medication, though Goldsmith said many parents find medicine can be a life-changing solution.
Some in the field believe that medicating young children with high doses of "toxic chemicals" is not the best answer. Elizabeth E. Root, a retired licensed clinical social worker has written a book, "Kids Caught in the Psychiatric Maelstrom," about what she says are the dangerous effects of "therapeutic" drugs.
Many of the drugs, she argues, causes bigger problems that really do require medication, whereas the first concern could have been solved another, non-medicated way. She also emphasizes the important bonds between parent and child, which can help stave off emotional distress.
Yet those bonds are being threatened by the "drastic change in family structure in the last 25 years," she said. "With technology and the economy as it is, families have been grossly disrupted, and the kids are like the canaries in the mine, telling us how confused and upset and sad they are, and their out-of-control behavior is their way of telling us. And drugging them is certainly not the solution."
Root encouraged parents to show their children lots of love, establish specific rules and then enforce them with consistency and clarity. She also emphasized the importance of a good diet, limited screen time, more exercise and plenty of unstructured playtime for children.
"The best prevention strategy," Thompson said, "is to build in young children the sources of emotional health and well-being that will help them stand resilient and strong when adversity comes."
The emotionate child
Those sources of emotional health comprise the "emotionate" side of a child, or a child's ability to perceive and understand emotions and show sensitivity toward others — going beyond the emotional responses of crying or laughing.
Children who have been through severe trauma may have difficulty responding "emotionately" and may need assistance in learning or relearning such sensitivity. In the absence of trauma, "emotionate" learning can begin very early, as seen in one of Thompson's studies of 18-month-old children.
In one video segment, the research assistant puts a blanket in a box, then puts the lid on, then tries to put another blanket in. Acting concerned, she keeps pushing at the lid with the blanket and the little boy, sensing her concern, removes the lid.
The next scene shows the assistant drawing a picture, and then accidentally knocking the marker onto the floor. She leans over, reaches her hand out and looks sad, and the child picks up the marker and hands it to her.
In each case, Thompson pointed out that the 18-month-old had behaved altruistically without any reward or even thanks. Yet, when the same situations were repeated without the adult's emotional indications of needing assistance, the toddlers didn't help.
"These kids are tuning into multiple cues of an adult's need," Thompson said. "Does this reflect compassion? Probably not in an 18-month-old, but we're seeing in here the foundation of compassion that we're seeing in a parallel study with 4-year-olds."
Influence of parents
Despite the prevalence of parenting books on the market, there's no magic system that if followed will ensure a perfect child, Goldsmith said.
Parents should do their best to be physically and emotionally available to their children and reassure them that they will protect them from harm inside and outside the home, he said.
It's the children with stronger relationships and more secure attachments to their mothers who are better able to understand and deal with emotions, Thompson said. The opposite is also true, with children of financially strapped, clinically depressed mothers showing less emotional understanding than their peers.
"A secure attachment provides young children with a psychologically secure base for exploring and understanding emotions, especially negative emotions that may be upsetting or troubling," he said. "Those are the ones they need the most help in understanding."
Children who have strong relationships with their mothers and who talk often about emotions are also more positively self-aware and even more moral, Thompson explained.
In another study, 2½-year-old children were asked to complete a task that created some conflict — whether cleaning up toys after only a few minutes of playing or completing a far-too-difficult puzzle without mom's help.
Researchers looked at how the mother talked to her child during the potentially stressful situation and then brought the mother and child back six months later to look at conscience development, as measured by the child's ability to resist temptation.
This time, the children were given some poker chips to play with and told to ignore a shelf of exciting toys. To make it more difficult, halfway through the experiment, a research assistant would come in, play with several of the fun toys and then leave.
The researchers had coded the mother's earlier comments for how often she talked about rules, the consequences of actions and people's emotions, as well as how often she used moral evaluative statements, like 'Good boy!' They also listened for evidence of compromising or bargaining, justification and reasoning and the use of threats, teasing or insistence.
When moms talked about emotions and the human impact, as well as justification and reasoning, the children were able to resist the forbidden toys longer. Not once did a mother's discussion of rules and consequences predict an increase in a child's level of conscience, Thompson said.
Experts agree that the more time parents spend talking to their children about emotions, the more power they'll have to regulate them, but there are still many situations where children will struggle despite the parents' best efforts.
"When you have these difficult children who have a hard time emotionally and it shows up in their behaviors at school and home, you need all kinds of help," said Lori Cerar, executive director of Allies with Families, the Utah Chapter of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. She encouraged parents to seek out local and national resources, to turn to family, friends and faith for assistance and to talk with other parents whose children may be struggling with similar issues. Just because parents have questions, doesn't mean they're doing something wrong, she said.
"Parents need to be armed with all the information and help that's out there for them," she said. "(They need) to not isolate themselves, and not allow the 'You're a bad parent' rhetoric to get to them."