Emotions – they are all around us; they are within us. Recognizing, interpreting, and responding to emotions are skills that are key to our social interactions and academic success.
Consider, for instance, peer to peer interactions. A student needs to be able to read the emotional cues from his/her classmates in order to know how to respond and navigate various situations in the classroom and on the playground. “A key component of comprehension of daily social discourse is the listener’s ability to infer a partner’s emotional reactions (Ford and Milosky, 2003).” Similarly, when analyzing literature, a reader needs to pick up on the cues in the text to be able to understand what a character is experiencing and how such emotions lead to the preceding actions in the plot.
The Importance of Self Awareness
Having an awareness of one’s own emotions is critical as well; it plays a significant role in self-regulation (the management of emotions) and the planning and execution of one’s own actions across social and academic contexts. “A child must have the capacity to remain emotionally well-regulated to be ‘available’ for engagement with partners, and to benefit maximally from partner support (Laurent, Prizant, 2005).”
Long before they are able to speak, infants begin to develop the perception of emotions. At the age of two months, infants are able to respond to others’ facial expressions of happiness and surprise. Initially, parents are utilizing language to label emotions and they provide the strategies to help regulate those emotions (e.g., swaddling, rocking). The external control of physiological states becomes gradually replaced by the infant’s ability to manage one’s own emotions. (Giddan et. al, 1995).
Thumb sucking, for instance, is a baby’s attempt of self-soothing. By 12 months, toddlers rely on facial expressions to display appropriate responses. At two years of age, children can utilize basic vocabulary terms to label facial expressions, and they begin to attempt to comfort themselves when upset. By preschool, children can begin to read facial expressions to make inferences about emotions, and they can analyze situations to make predictions about characters’ responses (Ford and Milosky, 2003).
At 5 years of age, they are able to express ways to cope with sadness and anger, and by 7 years of age, children can make attempts to disguise their emotions. During early-mid adolescence (11-15 years), teens go through a phase of development in which the cognitive systems that seek rewards and process emotions are more developed than their abilities related to decision making and planning, which make teens’ emotional responses seem out of balance (side note to parents of teens: it’s a phase - hang in there!).
Supporting Your Child
Despite what we know about development, there are individual differences in the extent to which we experience emotions and how we cope with them. Nonetheless, as adults we can help support the emotional development of the children and teens in our lives.
Validate your child’s emotions
When children’s feelings are acknowledged and they are met with empathy rather than judgment, their self-esteem is fostered, and they can become more open to problem solving. (Bernstein, 2005). Try to avoid statements like, “It’s not a big deal”, “you are blowing this out of proportion”, or “get over it.” Rather, express your awareness of their feelings and the intensity of them: “I can tell that you are very upset.”
Point out the indicators of emotions
Talking about the different ways to recognize emotions can help children identify those feelings in others and within themselves. Discuss the facial cues or body gestures that are associated with different feelings (e.g., arms crossed, furrowed eyebrows) as well as the physiological signs inside one’s own body (e.g., stomachache, raised heart rate, sweaty palms).
“Children learn a great deal about expressing and regulating emotions by watching the behavior of others.” (Fujiki et al, 2002). Speak openly about your own emotions and how you handle them; Provide suggestions of ways they can regulate their own emotions (e.g., deep breathing, going for a walk, meditation, deep pressure input through squeezes or massage).
Use language as a tool
Language can help manage emotions and guide behavior. Use mantras or positive affirmations. Encourage self-talk (“this assignment is making me feel overwhelmed, but I can take a break and ask for help.”) or provide language scripts (“I feel ______ because ______. I can ____). Engage in reflections on past experiences to aid in active problem solving (“Can you think of a time in the past when you felt this upset?” “How did you manage that situation?” “What did you learn from that experience?” “What is something you can do now?”)
If you’d like to further explore how to help your child develop his/her awareness of emotions or how to manage them, please reach out for more about tips, resources, and supplemental support.
Syndy Margot, Nexus at Mead