As a psychologist and founder of a child development center, I work with young children on building emotional competence. Emotional competence, research shows, is a critical foundation in achieving lifelong academic and social success, as well as overall wellbeing.
Emotional competence is comprised of emotion knowledge and emotion regulation. Advances in neuroscience show that by three years of age, 90% of a child’s brain has been developed and that during this time, the maturation of the brain is intricately connected to the ability to manage and control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. As the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child noted in 2004, “When feelings are not managed or well regulated well, thinking can be impaired; when the brain is dealing with unregulated emotion, it cannot learn.”
In order to teach children emotional competence, we as adults also need emotional competence. As our childrens’ primary socializers, we need to know how to permit and promote appropriate expressions of behavior so that they can learn through the observation, imitation, modeling, guidance, and responsive reaction that emerge out of our close relationships with them.
But the reality is that permitting and promoting appropriate expressions of behavior in ourselves can sometimes be difficult, particularly when it comes to expressive language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard adults mislabel emotions, especially when it comes to anger. While Ryan hitting his sister might make Mommy angry, Mommy, perhaps for fear of being too harsh, tells Ryan instead his actions made her sad.
Granularity of language matters, especially when it comes to emotion. A recent article in The New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, points to studies that show that emotional granularity allows people to be more agile at regulating their emotions.
“People who achieve it are also likely to have longer, healthier lives,” she writes. “They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label, and understand their emotions.”
Feldman Barrett also points out, as we know so well at Beginnings, that schoolchildren who learn more emotion concepts have improved social behavior and academic performance.
Recognition and identification, expression, understanding and regulation are all important parts of emotional competence. To develop it in our children, we need those same skills ourselves. So the next time you are mad at your child for bonking the dog on the head or pulling a sibling’s hair or dumping that lasagna you just burned on the floor, please don’t say you’re sad, if in fact you are angry.
Your child will be better off for it.