How To Encourage Kids To Talk About Emotions: Building Emotional Competence in Children

building emotional competence in children

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).

Read Emotional Intelligence in Kids: 3 Tips To Help Your Child Navigate Difficult Emotions

This is an especially important issue for boys. Parents use more emotional words with their daughters than with their sons, and even sing to their baby girls more than they sing to their baby boys (e.g., Mascaro, Rentscher, Hackett, Mehl, & Rilling, 2017). Furthermore, while girls are generally encouraged to express negative emotions like sadness, boys’ expressions of sadness are more often dismissed (Zeman, Cameron, & Price, 2019).

And it’s not just by parents — peers also discourage boys (but not girls) from expressing sadness and there’s more teasing associated with expressions of sadness in boys than in girls (Perry-Parrish & Zeman, 2011).

Given the importance of emotional competence in so many areas of development, some researchers have suggested that teaching children emotional skills in school might be beneficial. Interventions aimed at teaching children emotional knowledge have been effective in increasing emotional competence and prosocial behaviors.

For example, reading children’s stories rich with emotional language has been shown to improve children’s emotional competence of children is later encouraged to talk about the content of the stories with a peer (Grazzani & Ornaghi, 2011). Similarly, children who received training with emotion labels and their causes showed significant improvement in emotion knowledge (Salmon, et al 2013).

Further, similar interventions that encourage children to have conversations about emotions led to changes in children’s understanding of when to behave prosocially, such as when to share and help others (Ornaghi, Grazzani, Cherubin, Conte, & Piralli, 2015)

The take-home message here is that talking to kids about emotions — both the good ones and the bad ones — can have a lot of benefits for children’s emotional competence, especially for boys. Talking about emotions can help children process their feelings and better recognize different emotions in themselves and in others.

Read 10 Simple But Vital Life Lessons To Teach Kids Before They Turn 10

And although this might seem easy when children are happy, it might be more challenging in the face of negative emotional responses, like a temper tantrum. But even when a child’s emotional reactions make you angry or upset, it’s important to remember that when children exhibit negative emotions, they are often just looking for support, so perhaps a short talk can go a long way.


Written By Vanessa LoBue
Originally Appeared In Psychology Today

If you can help your child develop a healthy amount of emotional competence, you will see how they thrive and deal with their emotions in a healthy manner. The more you help them and support them, the more positive they will feel about themselves and will look towards having healthy reactions to even the most undesirable situations.

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How To Encourage Kids To Talk About Emotions: Building Emotional Competence in Children
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How To Encourage Kids To Talk About Emotions: Building Emotional Competence in Children
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