Why Talking to Kids About Emotions Early Matters

by Sanya Pelini July 26, 2017

A child is sitting on a sofa with emotional

Fostering kids’ emotional regulation is the latest trend in child development, and we can no longer ignore the positive impact of teaching kids to identify and manage emotions. But what does emotional regulation really mean? Emotion regulation means assuming that much of kids’ behavior is driven by emotions. Tantrums, aggressive behavior, and violence in young kids are often – but not always – a signal of their inability to work out their emotions. Emotional intelligence therefore means paying attention to kids’ emotions and assuming that kids understand and benefit when we talk to them about feelings and emotions. It’s not just about helping kids identify different emotions. It’s also about helping them understand that sometimes they have to deal with underlying issues, and other times they have to walk away. Fostering kids emotional intelligence does not mean protecting them from difficult emotions. On the contrary, we help kids develop their emotional intelligence by showing them that emotions are a part of life – that everyone experiences them – and providing a framework within which they can safely express those emotions in acceptable ways. 

Why does emotional intelligence matter?

Much research has been undertaken on emotional intelligence. The studies have found that when we view our kids emotions as important learning opportunities, we help them develop emotional regulation. In this regard, Gottman’s studies have shown that when we validate our kids’ emotions, they are more likely to have better social, academic, and psychological outcomes in the childhood years and beyond. Several studies have found that the earlier kids are spoken to about emotions (age three), the better they understand and deal with their own emotions and those of others. Other studies have found that even at the end of their second year, kids are able to use emotion-descriptive terms. There is evidence that verbally explaining the causes and consequences of emotions has an impact on kids’ behavior. Moreover, when we are more empathic, kids are also likely to repair the distress they cause to others and display more altruistic behavior. In one study, 41 sibling pairs and their mothers were observed when the second child was three years old. They were then observed again when the second child was six-and-a-half years old. One of the study’s objectives was to determine whether talking to kids about feelings and emotions would have an impact on their later ability to identify the feelings and emotions of others. Although the study does not make it possible to conclude that early family discourse alone causes kids to be more emotionally intelligent, it highlighted interesting results:
  • Kids were more aware of emotions when they were in dispute with others. In other words, social conflict provides an opportunity for parents to talk about emotions. In families where little dispute was observed, kids learned less about emotion regulation.
  • The more frequently kids were spoken to about a range of emotions from age three, the more likely they were to identify the emotions of unfamiliar adults at age six. Kids who had not learned about emotions were less able to accurately identify those emotions.
Much of the available research on emotional intelligence suggests that kids are more likely to understand different emotions when they are provided early opportunities to reflect upon them. There are, however, three important phases to keep in mind when teaching kids about emotions:

1 | Help kids identify emotions

Helping kids identify different emotions is the first step in helping them develop emotional intelligence. There are multiple ways to teach kids about emotions in fun ways. When we verbalize different emotions, we help our kids learn to identify them. Being aware of kids’ emotions and giving them a label (e.g. “You look sad”) can also help. Characters in books or even pictures can provide an opportunity to talk about emotions (e.g. “He sure looks happy”).

2 | Identify the factors underlying difficult emotions

Much of kids’ behavior is driven by emotions. Helping kids understand why certain situations make them feel a certain way makes it easier to deal with their emotions. Even when kids are unwilling to talk about what triggers their own emotions, encouraging them to talk about others’ emotions might help them open up. For instance, when reading a book or looking at an image, you could say, “Why do you think she looks so sad?” Or you could ask how they think a friend would feel in a similar situation. Talking about triggers helps kids reflect about different emotions and makes it easier to identify the appropriate action to take.

3 | Identify how to deal with emotions

The third step involves knowing how to deal with emotions. There are situations we can control. For instance, we can help a child whose constant anger is sparked by sibling rivalry. In other situations, it’s better to “walk away.” Giving kids appropriate tools, such as calm-down jars or boxes, can help them learn to manage anger by themselves. The thing to remember about emotion regulation is that emotions are everywhere. You can use games to talk to kids about emotions or take advantage of outings to “analyze” the emotions of others. When it comes to talking to kids about emotions, the options are limitless. The key is to take it one day at a time.

Sanya Pelini


Also in Conversations

family standing in front of a wall selecting paint with paint brush and ladder
Be the Master of Your Emotions by Managing Them With Color

by ParentCo.

Color impacts mood. If nothing else, arming yourself with this info is a reminder of the mood you want to be in, and as a result you will likely get there faster.

Continue Reading

7 Coping Skills That Make Me a Better Mom
7 Coping Skills That Make Me a Better Mom

by ParentCo.

Patience and understanding don't always come easy in the trenches of toddler raising. Fortunately, there are ways to cultivate both.

Continue Reading

parents with little daughter cooking salad
5 of My Fastest, Favorite Go-To Family Dinners

by ParentCo.

Here are five of my favorite fast family dinners I serve over and over again. I empower people to grab easy ingredients and mix them together to get dinner done.

Continue Reading