Emotional competence, sometimes called “emotional intelligence”, is one of the most important building blocks of child development. And “emotion understanding” – understanding and recognising other people’s feelings, as well as their causes and consequences – is a key component.
Even in children as young as two, understanding what someone else might be feeling is associated with more prosocial behaviour. Better emotion understanding has also been linked to less aggression, more empathy, better cooperation with other children and even the ability to conceive of a moral ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, among other social skills.
The good news is that emotion understanding can be taught – and from a younger age than you might think.
“The good news is that emotion understanding can be taught – and from a younger age than you might think.”
One expert who knows this first-hand is Sophie Havighurst, professor of child clinical psychology at the University of Melbourne. Havighurst is an author of Tuning in to Kids, developed with co-author Ann Harley, which provides caregivers with tools for teaching emotion understanding.
The Tuning in to Kids suite of programs has been tested on preschoolers in Australia, teenagers who have been in foster care in the US, kindergarteners in Norway, preschoolers in Iran, and even toddlers in Australia. Across these populations, Havighurst and other researchers have consistently found that children who have participated in these programs have better emotion understanding than those who have not.
Intriguingly, they’ve also found other benefits, such as the programme’s potential to reduce anxiety in preschoolers, improve the behaviour of children with conduct problems, and make a positive difference in the emotional atmosphere of families, for example by decreasing fighting. They’ve even found that it can lower the level of systemic cortisol in children aged 18 to 36 months. “These findings suggest that when parents are more emotionally responsive, children’s internal systems are less stressed,” Havighurst says.
The approach focuses first on helping caregivers with their own emotions. For many of us, a discomfort with “negative” emotions can lead us to respond by distracting children when they’re sad or punishing them when they’re angry. Emotion coaching teaches adults to first find their own calm, if needed. “That might mean having a drink of water, or perhaps stepping outside”, says Havighurst.
“Emotion coaching teaches adults to first find their own calm, if needed.”
When caregivers have succeeded in regulating themselves, they can empathise with the child’s emotional experience and reflect on it, rather than trying to “fix” the feeling. For example, an adult might say, “Aw, you’re having a tough time, aren’t you? I know it’s really frustrating when you don’t want to leave the playground.” Later, once the child has calmed down, the adult can guide the child’s behaviour or help the child problem-solve, for example by saying, “I know you get angry when we leave the playground, but you can’t hit me. What could we do to make it easier when we have to leave?”
With a toddler, the response should be less verbal – it’s more about the caregiver’s tone of voice, body language, even breathing. And it normally means remaining physically close to the child. “Even an angry child will still want you nearby to provide a sense of security,” Havighurst says.
It’s also important to do what you can to prepare for difficult moments, she says. One big piece is self-care. “It’s often the thing that comes last when you have young children,” she says. “But it’s hard to be emotionally in a good space to understand and regulate your own emotions if you are completely stripped.”
Knowing what your own automatic responses are is essential as well – and having the tools in place to interrupt them. When we’re triggered, we often go into a “fight, flight, freeze” response that we can’t think our way out of. Instead, we need to have some strategies in place that involve our physical body and nervous system, such as breathing or stretching. We also need to practice them in advance so that, in a tough moment, they’re at our fingertips.
Why does all of this seem to help children so much?
Havighurst thinks there are two main reasons. One is that, as we learn about emotions cognitively – what they are and how they might feel in our body – we start to move our emotional experience out of the reactive, emotive limbic system and towards our frontal lobes, where we can think and self-regulate.
Another is that the programme is normally focused on caregivers. While teachers play a key role in building children’s emotional competence, it is shifting a caregiver’s emotional “script” that may impact a child the most.
“While teachers play a key role in building children’s emotional competence, it is shifting a caregiver’s emotional “script” that may impact a child the most.”
“The language of the people who raise you and their ways of responding to emotions become internalised as your own dialogue,” Havighurst says. “Parents are the frontal lobe, or the regulator, for very young children most of the time.”
A child who is ignored or snapped at for having certain feelings may learn to avoid or repress them. But if a caregiver has learnt to be comfortable enough with emotions to stay with children during a difficult moment and let them know they are safe and loved no matter what they are feeling, the children will tend to develop healthier coping mechanisms, Havighurst says. Children with anxiety are more likely to have parents who are dismissive of emotions – which could partly explain why emotion coaching may reduce young children’s anxiety.
This approach may seem radical to those who have been taught that a child who whines or throws a tantrum should be ignored or even punished. But researchers underscore that it’s not a matter of being permissive. Instead, it is about maintaining boundaries in an empathetic, but still firm, way. In the long term, emotion coaching is meant to help children through tough moments so that they are ultimately better able to regulate themselves.
“In the long term, emotion coaching is meant to help children through tough moments so that they are ultimately better able to regulate themselves.”
It is also a matter of priorities. Many parents spend hours teaching their children to ride a bicycle or recite the alphabet. Emotional competence has been linked in adulthood to better mental and physical health, stronger relationships, and even job performance. Given its importance to so many aspects of our lives, the question isn’t why we would spend time and effort to overcome our own discomfort in order to help our children learn to understand, accept, and appropriately express their feelings. The real question is, why wouldn’t we?