Children always look towards their parents for guidance, be it emotional or physical. Because they are children, they have a hard time dealing with the various emotions they feel. As a parent, it is your responsibility to help them develop a certain degree of emotional competence, so that they can thrive and process all their emotions better.
Last week I was outside in the backyard with my 4-year-old son, immersed in conversation about his swim lesson that upcoming Saturday. We were talking about how excited he was about the lesson, how he was looking forward to playing games with his teacher, and how he might even put his head underwater that week. Then all of sudden, out of nowhere, he started screaming that he didn’t like the snack that he was happily eating only a few minutes before. When I dared to ask him why he no longer wanted the snack, there was more yelling, then crying, and before I knew it, the snack was on the ground. I thought to myself (as any parent would):
What in the world just happened?
My typically level-headed son went from happy-go-lucky to full-blown tantrum in under 30 seconds. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with a 4-year-old, this is just par for the course; temper tantrums are common, as are seemingly unreasonable outbursts of emotion.
The problem with young children is that they are able to feel an unlimited number of emotions in response to any event in their lives, but they don’t have a great deal of control over those emotions, they have a hard time recognizing why they are feeling what they’re feeling, and they have trouble anticipating how you might react to their emotional outbursts.
Emotional competence — or how children learn to express and control those emotions and recognize the emotions of others — is an important predictor of all sorts of positive outcomes for children, including starting and maintaining positive social relationships, and even academic performance (Denham, 2019).
This makes sense, as emotional competence is what helps children form and develop relationships with their parents, teachers, and peers; it is how they are able to control their own emotions so that they can concentrate on schoolwork, and behave appropriately in response to the needs of others. Further, children who lack emotional competence are at risk for peer rejection, difficulty in school, and emotional and behavioral problems.
How does emotional competence develop and how can we encourage it in our own children? To some extent, there are aspects of emotional competence that have a biological basis; indeed, some children are just more sensitive than others and are thus more prone to experiencing intense emotional reactions. Luckily, we are not completely bound by our biology, and one of the key predictors of emotional competence happens to be something that parents can do at home, which is to talk about emotions with their kids.
Emotion talks predict children’s later emotional understanding and their ability to regulate emotional responses (Denham, 2019). Furthermore, talking about emotions can also predict important prosocial behaviors. For example, in a storybook interaction between parents and their toddlers, parents who talked more about emotions while reading the book had 18 to 24-month-old children who helped and shared more than parents who engaged in less emotion talk (Brownell, Svetlova, Anderson, Nichols, & Drummond, 2013).
While at first blush, it might seem easy to talk about emotions with your kids, it’s mostly easy to talk about good feelings; it’s a lot harder to talk about the bad ones. In fact, in Western cultures, parents typically try to increase children’s expression of positive emotions and minimize the expression of negative emotions (Pérez-Edger, 2019).
As in the popular movie Inside Out, while Joy is always embraced, Sadness is often ignored or dismissed. Importantly, research suggests that parents can play a role in helping children develop emotional competence by encouraging their children to talk about negative emotions, which can help children understand what causes negative emotions and how to appropriately express them (Zeman, Cameron, & Price, 2019).
However, while some parents encourage children to talk about emotions like sadness, others ignore or even punish children for expressing negative emotions. As a result, these children may have trouble learning how to cope with negative emotions themselves, are less emotionally expressive, and might be more prone to developing emotional problems (Zeman, Cameron, & Price, 2019).