Have you ever experienced an emotion and not understood exactly what you were feeling or how to handle it? Now imagine your child experiencing this. It can be tricky for them to know how to process and manage these emotions.
What is Emotion Understanding?
Emotion understanding is an important aspect of emotional development. Individuals with high emotional understanding are able to recognize, identify, and control their own emotions, while also being able to perceive others’ emotions.6
Why is Emotional Understanding Important?
If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.6
Children that develop emotion understanding are more likely to succeed now and later in life. In fact, early knowledge about emotions is linked to later social competence, academic achievement, overall well-being, prosocial behaviors, and healthy relationship attachments.1,7,13 On the other hand, children who struggle with emotion understanding and are deficient in their emotional development are more likely to struggle regulating their own emotions (e.g., anger, stress, anxiety), to get involved in risky behavior, or to form unhealthy attachments and relationships.5,11
Now that being said, gaining emotional understanding can be a difficult process for kids. They need help and guidance. That’s where you as parents come in. Children need and depend on you to help them navigate through their emotions. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, "Parents have a sacred duty to...teach” their children (¶ 6). Moreover, research indicates that parents tend to be the leading teachers in emotion understanding for their children.3,4,9,10,14,15 Your children are constantly learning from you in the everyday interactions you share. The question is what are you teaching them when it comes to emotions?
There are three main ways that parents teach their children about emotion. These include the way the parent responds to their own emotions, the way they react to their child’s emotions, and the way that they talk about emotions with their child.4
One way that parents teach about emotion is through their own emotional expressions.2,4 When a parent, for example, begins to yell at their spouse because they are upset and disagree, they can simultaneously be teaching the child to model in a similar fashion. The child might get the idea that when you disagree with someone, an appropriate way to behave and handle the situation would be to yell. Therefore, as parents it is important to model appropriate emotion regulation and behavioral responses to different triggering and emotional situations, especially in the presence of your children. Now, no parent is perfect, but it is up to you to set a good example for your kids to follow and pattern their own behavior after.
What can parents do to display better emotional responses for their child?
- Breathing exercises. Instead of yelling at your spouse when you are upset, you can pause and take a few deep breaths. This will help calm down your body and clear your mind. Doing so will allow you to better process the situation and appropriately respond.8
- Call a time-out. Another simple thing parents can do when they are feeling emotionally triggered or overwhelmed is to step back from the situation. For example, when having an argument with your spouse, you could realize that the situation is getting tense and causing you to get heated. You then tell your spouse that you need 10 minutes to calm down and collect your thoughts. During this time you could go for a walk, listen to music, or simply sit on the couch. Once that time is up you return to the conversation feeling more relaxed and calm.
Another way that children learn about emotions is through the way parents react to their emotional expression.2,4,12 If a parent yells at their child for crying and feeling sad, it can teach the child that feeling sadness and expressing their feelings is wrong. However, experiencing emotions is good and useful in helping children better understand themselves and their relationship with their environment. Healthy emotional responses by the parents can help children feel validated while also being able to appropriately process their emotional experience.
What can parents do to react in a healthy and appropriate manner to their child’s emotional displays?
- Practice your reactions. Sometimes in the heat of the moment we say things or act in a way that we later regret. In order to help prevent this, try writing down some of the negative reactions you have recently had with your child. Then write better ways in which you can respond to those situations and practice implementing those reactions.
Parent-child conversations lead to greater emotion vocabulary and emotion knowledge.3,4,14 A parent who sits down with their child who is crying and talks about the situation, is creating a teachable moment and opportunity for connection. As they talk about why the child is crying, what they are feeling, and what they think they can do to alleviate the situation, children learn how to better work through their emotions and identify them.
What can parents do to incorporate more dialogue with their child about emotions?
- Read books with them. A great way to talk to kids about emotions is by using books as a starting tool.9 After you read a story regarding a child’s emotional experience, you can talk about what you learned about the emotions with your child. This will help the child recognize how to identify and label the different emotions, which is a key part of emotional understanding.
Provided below are just some of many recommended books you can read with your child to help facilitate these learning opportunities.
- The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
- The Boy with Big Feelings by Brittney Winn Lee
- What Am I Feeling? by Josh Straub & Christi Straub
- Talking about Feelings by Jayneen Sanders
Developing emotion understanding is an ongoing process, so make sure to be patient with yourself and your child as you work to teach them more about emotions.
Written by Alexandra Cooper, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. April 13, 2021.
- Charbonneau, D., & Nicol, A. A. (2002). Emotional intelligence and prosocial behaviors in adolescents. Psychological Reports, 90(2), 361-370.
- Denham, S. A., Bassett, H. H., Way, E., Mincic, M., Zinsser, K., & Graling, K. (2012). Preschoolers’ emotion knowledge: Self-regulatory foundations, and predictions of early school success. Cognition & Emotion, 26(4), 667-679. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2011.60204
- Dunn, J., Brown, J., & Beardsall, L. (1991). Family talk about feeling states and children's later understanding of others' emotions. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 448. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16184.108.40.2068
- Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (1998). Parental socialization of emotion. Psychological Inquiry, 9(4), 241-273. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
- Fergusson, D. M., John Horwood, L., & Ridder, E. M. (2005). Show me the child at seven: the consequences of conduct problems in childhood for psychosocial functioning in adulthood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(8), 837-849.
- Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence. Bantam.
- Hansenne, M., & Legrand, J. (2012). Creativity, emotional intelligence, and school performance in children. International Journal of Educational Research, 53, 264-268.
- Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A., & Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(2), 107-115.
- Knothe, J. M., & Walle, E. A. (2018). Parental communication about emotional contexts: Differences across discrete categories of emotion. Social Development, 27(2), 247-261. https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12276
- Lagattuta, K. H., & Wellman, H. M. (2002). Differences in early parent-child conversations about negative versus positive emotions: Implications for the development of psychological understanding. Developmental Psychology, 38(4), 564-580. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.114
- Moutsiana, C., Fearon, P., Murray, L., Cooper, P., Goodyer, I., Johnstone, T., & Halligan, S. (2014). Making an effort to feel positive: insecure attachment in infancy predicts the neural underpinnings of emotion regulation in adulthood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(9), 999-1008.
- Perlman, S. B., Camras, L. A., & Pelphrey, K. A. (2008). Physiology and functioning: Parents vagal tone, emotion socialization, and children’s emotion knowledge. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 100(4), 308-315. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2008.03.007
- Punia, S., & Sangwan, S. (2011). Emotional intelligence and social adaptation of school children. Journal of Psychology, 2(2), 83-87.
- Thompson, R. (2006). Conversation and developing understanding: Introduction to the special issue. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 52, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1353/mpq.2006.0008
- Zahn‐Waxler, C. (2010). Socialization of emotion: Who influences whom and how? New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2010(128), 101-109. https://doi.org/10.1002/cd.271