Talking about emotions
Emotional competence — or how children learn to express and control those emotions and recognize the emotions of others — is an important predictor of all sorts of positive outcomes for children, including starting and maintaining positive social relationships, and even academic performance (Denham, 2019). This makes sense, as emotional competence is what helps children form and develop relationships with their parents, teachers, and peers; it is how they are able to control their own emotions so that they can concentrate on schoolwork, and behave appropriately in response to the needs of others. Further, children who lack emotional competence are at risk for peer rejection, difficulty in school, and emotional and behavioral problems.
How does emotional competence develop and how can we encourage it in our own children?
In an article first published in The Conversation,Lecturer in Psychology, University of Winchester wrote about six phrases to help children express their emotions.
Emotional competence is an important life skill. Children with a high level of emotional competence, tend to have more friends, do better at school, and are more likely to help others.
Emotional competence has three components: understanding, expression and regulation. And these are all things parents can help their children to master. One way children can learn about emotions is by talking about them with their parents. So here are six phrases that could help with your child’s emotional development.
1. It’s OK to feel what you are feeling
Children and adolescents worry about not being “normal”, a feeling that stems from a need to fit in. To begin with, young children mostly want to fit in with their family. Then, as they grow, the need to fit in with their peers grows stronger.
By telling them that it’s OK to feel whatever it is they are feeling, we are normalising their emotions. We are telling them that there is nothing “weird” about them, and they fit in just fine.
2. How you feel right now won’t last forever
Emotions are not permanent, and children need to understand that feelings have a beginning and an end. Importantly, children should also learn that not only will an emotion pass, but that until that happens, its intensity will decrease.
By understanding this, children will be able to cope better with their emotions. This is especially important in the case of negative emotions, when the feeling of not being able to deal with them may lead to harmful behaviour.
3. Don’t let your feelings control you
Although we can’t totally control our emotions, we can to a large extent influence which emotions we have, when we experience them, and how we express them. This is called emotional regulation and is best achieved by changing the way we think about our feelings.
This is possible because the situations we face don’t automatically cause specific emotions. Instead, the emotions we feel depend on our evaluation of those situations. For example, a teenager applying for a summer job interview can view the experience as a pass/fail experience or as an opportunity to learn. It is the evaluation of the experience – something we can control – which will influence the way we feel about it.
4. Let’s put a name to your feeling
Children are not always able to name the feelings they experience. But it is important that we help children put a label on their emotions because by doing so they tend to feel better. Studies analysing adult brain activity show that by naming feelings of anger and sadness, the amygdala (the part of the brain that deals with emotions) becomes less active. This in turn reduces the intensity of our emotional responses and makes us feel better.
5. Why are you behaving this way? Let’s think about how you are feeling
Our behaviours stem from our emotions, so children need to understand the link between the two. By achieving this understanding, children are better able to predict and regulate their own behaviours and the behaviours of those around them.
For example, if a child knows that when he is angry with his brother he usually hits him. The next time this happens, he will be better equipped to regulate himself and not lash out.
6. No matter what you feel, I am here for you
This is perhaps the most important thing that we can tell our children to help them develop their emotional competence. Children experience many different emotions and some of them are accompanied by guilt or shame.
If, for example, a teenager falls in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, he may feel ashamed or guilty. By telling him that no matter what he feels we are there for him, he will feel secure enough to talk about those emotions, which in turn will help him to process them effectively, helping his overall mental health.
Given the importance of emotional competence to so many areas of development, some researchers have suggested that teaching children emotional skills in school might be beneficial. Interventions aimed at teaching children emotion knowledge have been effective in increasing emotional competence and prosocial behaviors. For example, reading children stories rich with emotional language has been shown to improve children’s emotional competence if children are later encouraged to talk about the content of the stories with a peer (Grazzani & Ornaghi, 2011). Similarly, children who received training with emotion labels and their causes showed significant improvement in emotion knowledge (Salmon, et al 2013).
The message here is that talking to kids about emotions — both the good ones and the bad ones — can have a lot of benefits for children’s emotional competence, especially for boys. Talking about emotions can help children process their feelings and better recognize different emotions in themselves and in others. And although this might seem easy when children are happy, it might be more challenging in the face of negative emotional responses, like a temper tantrum. But even when a child’s emotional reactions make you angry or upset, it’s important to remember that when children exhibit negative emotions, they are often just looking for support, so perhaps a short talk can go a long way.