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  • Michael Philp

The importance of emotional language for children

For quite some time in my practice as a Clinical Psychologist, I've observed how some children, as well as adults, seemed to have difficulty describing how they feel, even to the point of not being able to name the emotion and understand how that might feel in their bodies. You can imagine then, that if you don't know how to describe how you feel, it would be incredibly hard to help yourself calm down, or "emotionally regulate". There are many possible reasons why someone may have difficulty identifying their emotions. However, in this blog, we are looking at how for some children, they are not given the emotional language building blocks so that they can help themselves to emotionally regulate when they are distressed or over-whelmed.

Emotional language and tuning in

For some parents, using emotional language and "tuning in" to their children, comes quite automatically. Tuning in refers to the parent's ability to get a sense of how their child is thinking and feeling. For example, a tuned in parent might comment on their toddler who is trying to dance to music - "You're dancing to the music. It makes you feel happy". Or they might notice that their child has come home from school and is unusually quiet and comment "You seem upset about something". The important aspect here is that the parent is connecting the experience with an emotion eg dancing - happy/ unusual quietness - upset, and giving their child a label, and the language to express themselves.

Sometimes as parents, we have a hunch about how our child is feeling, but don't make it clear enough to our child what we are trying to achieve. For example, with the child who comes home unusually quiet, we might say "what's the matter?" and be more likely to receive the response "nothing". The unspoken message by the child is "I am overwhelmed by my feelings, and I don't know how to express it". By comparison, the comment "you seem upset about something" indicates to the child that we are tuned in to how they are feeling, we are giving them the language to express themselves and connect with the feeling, and we are more likely to get some acknowledgement such as a nod in agreement. We can then ask the child to explain what has happened to them that might be linked to the feeling of being upset.

Emotional Language

Dr Gottman, in his book "Raising an emotionally intelligent child", identified four types of parenting styles.

These parenting styles include:

Dismissive - ignores or minimises the child's feelings or the events that contributed to those feelings. Events are often 'swept under the carpet'

Disapproving - these parents often criticise their child for displaying emotions or believe that negative emotions should be controlled eg don't cry

Casual - all emotions are allowed, but no boundaries are set and no guidance is given to the child in how to manage these strong feelings

Emotion coach - does not dismiss or tell the child how they should feel; uses the strong emotions as an opportunity to connect with their child; helps their child to learn ways to manage their feelings.

Children from the dismissive, disapproving and casual style of parenting learn that their feelings are wrong or not valid, have difficulty regulating their feelings, and can have trouble forming friendships or getting along with other children. Emotion coached children, on the other hand, are able to effectively regulate their feelings, trust their feelings, get along with others, and have a good self-esteem. They feel valued and validated by their parents and that their parents "get them". Research has also demonstrated that using emotional language and "tuning in" to our children can help improve child behaviour and reduce undesirable behaviours.

Using emotional language helps our children to develop the building blocks for emotional regulation skills that they will need for the rest of their lives. Knowing how you feel, where it feels in the body, what that feeling is called, is vitally important in order to use appropriate emotional regulations skills and to communicate to others how you are feeling.

Some children and families may still need additional help with learning the skills of emotional regulation, and using emotional language. If you would like to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact Grove Psychology to arrange an appointment.

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