Today, I will be discussing the five-gallon jug and how it relates to emotional stability. Emotions originate in the brain, which is an organ in the body just like the heart and lungs. This biological component is the most tangible part of the process of emotions. However, emotions also involve thoughts and behavior choices, which are social, cultural and spiritual in nature – these last two parts are less specific in location of the brain. For this reason, human emotions are as unique the individual who is experiencing them. At birth, children’s brain functions are mature for bodily functions such as keeping the heart beating and lungs breathing. However, a child’s brain functions are immature with regard to emotions; these social, cultural and spiritual processes have to be experienced in order to promote maturity. Hence, a return to my five-gallon jug metaphor.
Emotions = Thinking + Feeling + Doing
Imagine a large, empty jug – as you pour water into it, it echoes and rumbles as the water hits the bottom and you hear high pitches and swirling. The same is true with an infant. Every new experience is “big” and consumes the child’s entire being. (Think of a baby. When the baby is happy, his or her whole body smiles. When the child is hungry, his or her whole body lets us know!) An explanation for this observation is that the brain is experience-dependent, meaning each event in a child’s life helps form a network, or web, of connections in the brain. Yet, other portions of this web of experiences is determining what events are safe. This is where the parent comes in.
As a child experiences new events, parents can help provide a sense of safety because a child will be determining whether “new” events are okay or not. If the parent provides safety, a child will approach life to experience it. For example, the child will want to try new foods and crawl to reach for a toy. If safety is not provided, a child will avoid experiencing life. A younger child’s brain rewards the body for new experiences that include exploration, curiosity, imagination and discovery. These rewards encourage the child to keep approaching throughout life. This reward matures the brain’s ability to manage emotions.
Present adult safety = child approaches = reward
Absent adult safety = child avoids = no reward
As children grow, their five-gallon jugs may not echo as much, because previous pours absorb the new sounds as water pours in. When children have new learning experiences that are positive, their brains mature and they learn how to manage “bigger” new experiences. Children can learn to manage their emotions when it comes to ongoing change – however, without parental guidance, the echoing in the pour can signal alarm defenses. Without guidance from parents, a school-aged child may feel anxiety and frustration. The child may be reluctant to explore and imagine. Going into adolescence, the result of a low number of positive new learning experiences leads to fewer rewards and thus fewer opportunities to learn how to manage complex emotions and situations in life.
Parents can help their young children prepare for positive new experiences by clearly stating a plan, including start and end times. For example, when going into a car seat, the parent should mention the word “car seat” so that a child can begin to identify the beginning of the process. The adult then says “ready” as the straps and buckling starts. When everything is in place, the adult lets the child know it is “all done.” A child can then begin to predict what will happen with the car seat, approach the process and manage the possible feelings of annoyance at the process. Remember that protest is okay; defiance is not.
Parents can help their school-age children prepare for positive new experiences by sharing control through choices and negotiating a plan. For example, when it is time to review homework, ask “what would work best for you: review homework before dinner or before riding your bike?” Consistency and following through will help a child predict what will happen, approach the process and manage the possible feelings of annoyance. Once again, protest is okay; defiance is not.
Finally, parents can help their adolescent children prepare for positive new experiences by explaining the importance accountability, correcting/building on mistakes and showing fairness. For example, as youths often begin identifying different groups (to belong or not belong to), an adult could “wonder” about various topics to help facilitate conversation. Without making a conclusion, the parent can help the child think about social, cultural and spiritual processes. For example, the parent could ask, “I wonder why it’s important to get a high school diploma?”, “I wonder what would help you get better at being on time for class?” or “I wonder what the outcome might be for such behavior?” These questions help the adolescent prepare for adulthood by helping him or her predict what behavior society expects. Such “pouring” from an adult can help youths approach life and learn to manage the ups and downs in life. Always remember that protest is okay; defiance is not.
With help from parents, children can enjoy learning to experience emotions and all the components of thinking, feeling and doing along the way. While the brain will go through its physical processes, parents have the opportunity to help foster emotional growth through the unique experiences that shape each individual for life. Each “pour” helps a child to reach his or her full five-gallon potential as a happy, healthy and safe adult.