What does a bad day at school feel like for a child? To find out, it’s tempting simply to ask “Would you like to talk about it?” But are all children equipped with the tools they need to answer that question? What if a child has a language disorder, for example? Such disorders can affect a child’s ability to use language to express and manage emotions, as adults commonly do. Researchers like myself are starting to explore the various factors, including language disorders, that can affect the management of difficult emotions in children.

Managing emotions through linguistic strategies

One effective tool for regulating our emotions is ‘self-talk’. Self-talk can help us to distance ourselves from negative events. For example, if you fail a test you might say to yourself, “In the long run this one result doesn’t matter”. This puts the event into perspective and helps you feel better. In one study, participants who engaged in distancing self-talk after viewing distressing images were less distressed than those who did not. They felt better if they used fewer first person pronouns, such as “I”, and fewer present-tense verbs – in fact, the more they distanced themselves using these linguistic techniques, the better they felt.

We know that children are not nearly as effective as adults at regulating emotions using linguistic strategies such as distancing self-talk. ‘Temporal distancing’ – imagining the effects of a current negative event from the perspective of your future self – is an effective technique for regulating emotions. To learn more about children’s ability to do this, my colleagues and I asked a group of 10- to 12-year-old children and a group of young adults to picture a negative scenario, such as “you fail an important exam”, and then rate their feelings either in the moment, or after imagining themselves many years later. Relative to adults, the children experienced a smaller reduction in distress levels when imagining themselves many years later compared to in the moment. This tells us that the children were less effective than the adults at regulating their emotions through temporal distancing, probably because adults are better at using self-talk to distance themselves.

Children learn verbal emotion regulation strategies, such as temporal distancing, from caregivers through verbal communication. The children in our study were part of a longitudinal study of children’s language development, so we were able to look at their language skills over time. We found that early language skills predicted regulation success even more strongly than current language skills. This suggests that children use language to learn and practice verbal regulation strategies like temporal distancing, which in turn leads to more successful emotion regulation.

Early language skills predicted regulation success even more strongly than current language skills.”

Helping children with language disorders

Learning to use verbal regulation strategies is particularly challenging for children with communication difficulties. On average, two children in every classroom in England have an often undiagnosed condition called developmental language disorder (DLD). DLD is characterised by difficulties understanding and producing spoken language, in the absence of a biomedical condition such as deafness or autism. Children with DLD are twice as likely as those with typical language development to experience mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression. This may be in part because of difficulties using verbal emotion regulation strategies.

In our study cited above, a quarter of the children with a language disorder were unable to complete the temporal distancing task requiring them to imagine a future scenario. They had difficulty understanding the instructions, which involved reflecting and reporting on emotional states and thinking about the future. These children may find it similarly hard to engage in conversations about emotions in real life, which makes it challenging for them to take advantage of traditional mental health supports.

To help children with language disorders maintain their mental health, educators and caregivers might explicitly teach language that supports emotion regulation. This includes emotional vocabulary as well as syntax linking events to feelings – for example, “I feel sad because I was told off at school”. Verbal emotion-regulation strategies, such as distancing self-talk, can also be taught through modelling. In our study, many of the children with DLD who were able to follow the task instructions succeeded in regulating their emotions. This suggests that once children with DLD have the necessary vocabulary and syntax, they can manage their emotions effectively.

“Explicit teaching of emotional vocabulary and verbal regulation strategies can help children express and manage their emotions.”

Explicit teaching of emotional vocabulary and verbal regulation strategies can help children express and manage their emotions – whether they have a diagnosed language disorder or not. Equipped with these skills, a child who has a bad day at school can tell you all about it, distance themselves from it, and ultimately feel better.

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