Little kids have big emotions — any parent can attest to that. Helping kids learn about and understand their emotions is always a challenge for parents, but it’s an important one. Emotional “literacy” helps a child understand not only him- or herself, but also those around them.

Teaching children, particularly those from high-risk areas, to be emotionally savvy through books can help them learn to control their own behavior in real life, a new study finds.

Being more emotionally literate gives kids a framework through which to understand and express their emotions, rather than acting out to express them.

“Our findings offer promise for a practical, cost-effective parenting strategy to support at-risk toddlers' social and emotional development and reduce behavioral problems,” said researcher Holly Brophy-Herb.

She and her team worked with 89 families who were part of the Early Head Start program for toddlers in low-income families. They asked the mothers to read books that had no words but pictures portraying an emotional story about a girl who lost her pet and then found him again.

The mothers were taught to help their children identify, understand and connect with the emotions of the children in the books they were reading. This “emotional bridging” involves three parts. While looking at a picture of a child realizing her pet is lost, for example, the adult helps the child identify the emotion expressed in the picture and experienced by the character (sadness in this case); next they identify why the character is experiencing it (because she lost her pet); and finally, they help the child make the connection between the character’s experience and one of the child’s own (for instance, saying, “remember that time when you lost your teddy bear and were so sad?”).

The idea is that being more emotionally literate gives kids a framework through which to understand and express their emotions, rather than acting out to express them.

And it appears to work. In a follow-up seven months later, mothers in the highest-risk group reported the most improvements in behavior. For kids from high-risk areas who experience many stressors every day, having the verbal-emotional tools to express what they are feeling can be extremely valuable. Kids from low-income families hear many fewer words on a daily basis than middle- or high-income kids, which puts them at a considerable disadvantage regarding both academic and social-emotional readiness.

The results don’t just apply to low-income or high-risk families. All parents can help boost the emotional savvy of their kids. Slipping in little talks about emotions whenever you can is a great way to do it. It is best to do so casually, rather than having longer talks that kids are less likely to pay attention to.

So next time you’re reading a book with your child, or talking about how their day was, or even watching a movie together, take a minute to help them identify the emotions involved, their causes, and how they tie back to other personal experiences. Helping kids learn to talk about emotions early on may help them be better at managing their own emotions as time goes by — hopefully through the teenage years, and maybe even up into adulthood.

The study was carried out by a team at Michigan State University and is published in Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.