Scientists and educators agree that having the ability to use language to describe emotions has far-reaching benefits. It predicts how well children will get along with their peers, be able to soothe themselves through difficult situations and succeed at school.
Knowing how important it is for children to be able to name their feelings, researchers at Princeton University decided to look into ways parents and caregivers can help young children learn to label their emotions. What they found is that parents are very important, particularly in how they use emotional language around their kids.
The team used data from the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory Wordbank collected in both North America and the United Kingdom between 1962 and 2009. The Wordbank is a parent report instrument which captures information about children’s developing skills in early language.
You can show your child how you’re feeling about different situations by expressing yourself verbally. Also, praise your child whenever they talk about their feelings or express them appropriately.
The researchers examined this data and found:
- Language learning begins with concrete words (such as spoon) and then expands to positive and negative words that carry an emotional charge — such as “good” and “bad.”
- The rate at which one- and two-year-olds hear highly emotional words is just as frequent as more neutral words, but they learn highly valenced abstract words, such as those expressing emotions — “I’m so happy” — earlier than neutral abstract words like “outline.”
- Caregivers’ use of emotional labels and similar words influences children’s ability to use language to label their emotions.
That’s why it’s also important for caregivers to provide related words when labeling emotions to help children make sense of complex words. “For example, when introducing the label ‘happy’, a parent or caregiver can provide information about the situation or actions that surround the emotion (such as Rosa got a wonderful present for her birthday! She was so happy!),” researcher Mira Nencheva, a graduate student in psychology at Princeton, explained in a press statement. “Our research shows that children are more likely to know a given emotion label when they also know many other related valenced words.”
The team was limited by having to use words in the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory Wordbank data base which included very few emotion labels. In addition, the questionnaire was specifically designed for infants and toddlers. Future research would benefit from a wider range to include infancy to childhood to adolescence.
The study is published in Child Development.