Early childhood is full of learning joys and challenges for parents and children. As a parent, you might be concerned about preparing your child for school by facilitating their ability to name colors, letters, and numbers. But building your child’s emotional knowledge by teaching them how to identify, label, and express the emotions they feel, is just as essential (and possibly more so) as scholastic achievements. Children with more of this emotional intelligence have fewer mental health problems. Strengthening your child’s emotion knowledge is one way to reduce their risk for developing anxiety and other emotional issues later on.
Emotion knowledge reflects what children understand and know about emotions. Early emotion knowledge includes the ability to identify emotions based on cues, understand and use emotion labels, and recognize what situations evoke different emotions. You can serve as your child’s “emotion coach” by fostering their understanding of these important emotion components.
Learning to identify cues that signal how people express different emotions helps children to understand emotions better. You can teach your child to recognize emotion cues. For instance, Alma’s pouting face, slouching shoulders, and tears signal a specific emotion and that emotion is different from the one Alma feels when her eyes are wide, her mouth is open, her shoulders are arched, and she is clutching her teddy bear.
Learning to attach words and meaning to emotion cues helps your child to label emotions and express them more clearly. As your child builds a vocabulary, you can help your child to associate new words with different emotions, so that children can learn to identify when Alma is feeling sad or scared or worried. Building a vocabulary of emotion words can help your child express his or her emotions to you as well.
Learning to recognize emotions that occur in different situations helps children identify what they and others are feeling and why. You can help your child to understand what emotions people feel in different situations. For instance, your child can learn that Alma is pouting because she is feeling sad that her favorite toy broke or sad that she cannot go on a work trip with her Dad.
Emotion Knowledge and Anxiety
Serving as your children’s emotion coach can enhance their wellbeing. Having a solid emotion understanding is linked to fewer anxiety symptoms. A 2003 study found that children who were better able to identify and label different emotions in first grade reported fewer anxiety symptoms and loneliness when they were in fifth grade.
In 2010, researchers conducted a review of 19 different research studies with child participants ranging from 2- to 18-years of age. This review found that the better children were at identifying and labelling different emotions, the fewer anxiety symptoms. By strengthening early emotion knowledge, you can help to reduce your children’s risk of developing anxiety later in life.
Why Identifying & Labeling Emotions Reduces Anxiety Risk
There are several reasons why children who can identify, label, and verbally express their emotions early in childhood demonstrate better wellbeing as they progress through elementary school. Children with this knowledge are better equipped to understand, respond to, and manage their own feelings. They can also better interpret other’s emotions and respond to others in more appropriate ways. This is especially important once children start school and begin interacting with new people such as teachers and other children. For instance, after being left out of a game after school, an upset child with emotion knowledge skills can explain that they are feeling sad and why. This makes it easier for caregivers to know how to comfort the child and help them brainstorm solutions, such as practicing the game more so that other children see them as an asset on their team.
The simple act of using words to label and describe feelings and negative experiences dampens the emotional experience too. Research findings show that labeling emotional experiences reduces activation in brain regions that process emotions. People not only rate their emotions as less intense after an emotional experience where they have labeled and described them, but their body’s physiology (sweat, heart rates) also shows less of a response. In other words, coaching your children to identify, label, and express their emotions can automatically help children manage them with less effort!
How to Build Your Child’s Early Emotion Knowledge
There are numerous strategies you can use to help your child build greater emotion knowledge. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
- You can help your child to identify different emotion cues and their causes by role-playing. After making a disgust face you can ask your child, “can you guess what I am feeling?” Then take turns making different emotion faces, followed by a discussion of what things might make people feel that way.
- You can help your child build a vocabulary of emotions by recognizing and utilizing opportunities throughout the day to identify and label what they may be feeling. For example, you may say to your child: “How are you feeling right now? I know you liked petting the puppy but now we have to give it back and you look sad. Are you feeling sad?” The more you label emotions and the situations that give rise to them, the easier it will be for your children to do the same.
- Ask your children about emotions that they or others might be feeling. In this way, you provide an opportunity for them to identify, label and express emotions. For example, you might ask, “I heard Reggie couldn’t go to play at the park today because he is sick. How do you think Reggie feels?”
- Help your child come up with appropriate ways of expressing and handling their emotions. You can do this by brainstorming strategies your child can use the next time they feel a certain way. For example, you may say, “Remember when you got so frustrated when you couldn’t put on your helmet, and remember how you threw it across the room? Next time you can ask for my help or count to 30 and then try again. Can you think of other things you could do?”.
- Encourage your child to express their emotion. You can praise them when they express emotion in appropriate ways and make sure to point out the ways in which they did so. For example, you might say, “I know you were mad when you lost. But, I love how you told us and took some big deep breaths instead of knocking over the game board.”
- Use tools such as cartoons, photos, books, and videos to talk to your child about emotions. The next time you are watching TV together, point out characters that feel different emotions, label the emotion the character feels, and discuss the reason for the emotion. Talk about the different facial expressions of the characters. You can also draw similarities to your child’s own life by pointing out times when they felt and behaved that way. For example, you might say, “Look how happy Dora is that she just got a brand-new bike! Do you see her big smile? Remember when you got your new toy? You were so happy too!”
There are many opportunities in everyday life to build children’s emotion knowledge. You cannot prevent your child from feeling negative emotions or being upset. These are an important part of life, but you can help them learn to cope with those emotions. The emotion coaching that you do with them today may strengthen their abilities to deal with emotional challenges much later in life.