December 28, 2012

The Secret to Preventing Tantrums

Certain skills make it easier for kids to deal with life’s frustrations instead of acting out.

The default method of self-expression for children, especially for younger ones, can often be physical, so parents and teachers tell their kids to “use your words.” But by the time children are school-aged, they’re expected to resort to verbal rather than physical communication. A new study wondered whether better language skills really do help kids when it comes to dealing with life’s little frustrations. Luckily, it turns out that fostering kids’ language skills may indeed have an important impact on their ability to cope.

The ‘steeper’ the growth of language in the early years, the earlier children may be able to reflect upon their own emotional experiences and express their feelings.

The study measured the language skills of a group of 120 children, from the time they were 18 to 48 months old, using in-home and in-the-lab tests. They also tested the kids’ coping abilities by challenging them to a task in the lab. They had the kids’ mothers complete a “test” (answering some questions about their kids’ ability to wait) that took eight minutes. The kids were given a “boring” toy to play with, which was broken or otherwise unexciting. They were also presented with an enticing gift-wrapped present they had to wait to open until their mothers were finished with their questionnaires. The kids were rated by how they reacted to this waiting exercise.

Regardless of age, the better their language skills, the better the children coped with the challenge, and they expressed less extreme anger in response to it. The kids were more likely to seek support from their mothers calmly or to distract themselves from the frustration of waiting (for example, they asked, “Mom, are you done yet?” or “I wonder what it is?” or amused themselves by making faces in the one-way mirror in the lab room). Additionally, the children whose language skills improved more quickly over time more often sought support from their mothers when they were three; and at four years old, these children were better able to regulate their anger and frustration.

The authors are encouraged by the idea that more attention to language development could have a significant effect on emotional control as kids grow up. The “steeper” the growth of language in the early years, the earlier children may be able to reflect upon their own emotional experiences and express their feelings to their caregivers. This is also encouraging from a public health perspective: The more we learn about the relationship between language and emotion, the more researchers will be able to design effective interventions for kids who need a little extra help.

The study was carried out by a team at Pennsylvania State University, and published in the journal Child Development.

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