Allowing Space for Children’s Emotional Expression

A Review of “Rest Play Grow” by Deborah MacNamara

Rest Play Grow: Making Sense of Pre-schoolers” by Deborah MacNamara is a great book for professionals who work with young children, parent educators and parents who want to dig into their role.   The framework for the book is based on Gordon Neufeld’s Relational Developmental Approach; developmental theory, neuroscience and its connection and importance to attachment parenting, as a key approach to help children thrive.   Many of the concepts in “Rest Play Grow” may not be new to professionals working in the Early Childhood field or those who work with parents with young children; however, the way MacNamara presents these concepts reminds us how we work, interact and parent children under the age of six can help or hinder their growth (and the amount of growing and learning they are going through at this stage is astounding!).     “Kids aren’t entirely like us. Their brains aren’t fully developed. They’re not entirely self-aware,” she told the National Post. “While they often show a strong desire to be good, well-behaved human beings, they’re impulsive: they have yet to develop the self-control to govern either their emotions or their actions.”   The chapters on “How Children Attach to Caregivers,” “Hungry for Connection: Why Relationships Matter” and “Feelings and Hurts: Keeping Children’s Hearts Soft”, I found very simple, yet incredibly insightful. As adults, we often think that we are the ones with all the knowledge, and are responsible to direct and continually guide children’s learning or behaviour. MacNamara reminds us as professionals, teachers and parents we need to really listen and pay attention to children’s signals; how are they seeking to attach? And then we need to be their safe haven during the confusing, volatile emotions and behaviours of this stage.   “Emotional Expression provides the raw material upon which a parent can teach the language of the heart,” said MacNamara. “When young children have feeling names for their emotions, their words open the door to greater vulnerability, awareness and insight.”   Moreover, when we stop or thwart the emotional expression of a child we are not allowing for the growth of healthy emotional balance or regulation. Some professionals and parents can be quick to dismiss children’s emotions, as they seem illogical or messy. MacNamara cautions that when a child must suppress their emotional expression, it affects their emotional health and maturity.    “The cost is to the relationship they form to their emotions and how they evolve as emotional beings. Unwelcome emotions are pushed into the darkness, outside the parameters of what is deemed acceptable, leaving the cookie-cutter outline of their heart,” said MacNamara.   She also warns that if a child consistency is not able to express emotions in a safe way or space, they will develop negative defense mechanisms that will cause them to shut down, and inhibit growth and development. Children becoming hardened in this way, have implications for the development of capacity of feelings for others, such as empathy, which in turn, will affect social relationships.   This means there are times where we need to let a child cry something out, yell or scream, perhaps in group situation, or a public place. It may not always be comfortable, but as adults we need to gather our strength and be the pillar. By providing a solid space for a child to express, allowing emotional releases, naming feelings or acknowledging what you see happening with behaviour (emotions being acted out) will provide movement of this energy and connections to be made in the brain.   This also relates to further implications in adulthood, and connects to the extensive work Brene Brown has done. The power of being able to be comfortable with vulnerability and emotional expression is a key component to being a resilient, successful and happier individual as an adult.   So, what can professionals do to help children move through their feelings, so they can in turn learn resilience and healthy emotional habits? MacNamara outlines three steps in this role in guiding or steering a child as emotional beings:

  1. Teachers/Professionals/Parents are guides to facilitate emotional expression and assist a child in learning names for their feelings.
  2. Adults are shields who preserve soft hearts and assist feelings becoming conscious.
  3. We are tempering agents who decide how to restore balance and fluidity to a child’s emotional system, helping them mix and reflect on their feelings.

Purchase the book from our bookstore

Credits and Links:


About the Author