Children’s emotion understanding is central to their development. Emotions allow children to communicate their likes and dislikes. In addition, children’s emotion understanding predicts their later academic achievement (Izard, Fine, Schultz, Mostow, Ackerman, & Youngstrom, 2001) and their peer acceptance and popularity (Cassidy, Parke, Butkovsky, & Braungart, 1992). For these reasons, it is very important to understand the development of children’s emotion understanding and how parents and teachers can contribute to this understanding.
We will start with an explanation of children’s emotion understanding and then discuss work we and others have conducted on parent-child talk about emotions and ways to increase children’s emotion understanding. Children’s emotion understanding can be divided into three main components (Pons, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2004). When children are between 3 and 5 years, children understand external emotions. What they mean is that children can recognise simple emotions (e.g., happy, sad) from faces, understand simple cause and effect (e.g., if someone’s pet dies, the person will feel sad), and that remembering a previous experience will call up that emotion (e.g., if you remember when your dog died, you will feel sad again). The next group of emotions are termed mentalistic emotions. Children tend to understand these emotions between 5 and 7 years of age. They include understanding that two people may like different things, that depending on people’s beliefs they might feel a certain way, and that we can hide our emotions (e.g., if someone teases you, you can pretend not to let it bother you). The final group of emotions, reflective emotions, are acquired between 7 and 9 years of age. These include emotions such as knowing how to regulate emotions (e.g., thinking about something else as a method of soothing), ambivalent emotions, and the emotions induced by a moral situation. All of these different components can be assessed by a measure called the Test of Emotion Comprehension (Pons, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2004). to which we will refer later on.
Our work has focussed on looking at how parents talk to children while telling stories. We asked parents and their 4- and 6-year-old children to tell a story together that involved four different events designed to elicit emotion: (i) the parents leave their children to go on an overnight trip, (ii) the child falls down and hurts himself, (iii) the dog runs away, and (iv) the parents return home. We then transcribed the conversations and identified instances of emotion talk, such as happy, sad, etc. We also gave them the Test of Emotion Comprehension then and again six months later. We found that scores of the test were related to each other at the two time points. More interestingly, we found that the more mothers used emotion labels with children, the better children did on the Test of Emotion Comprehension even after controlling for their performance on the first administration of the test. Thus, mothers’ talk is related to how well children understand emotions (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2013). However, it is difficult to know if mothers who used more emotion words with their children because their children were more interested in emotion. For this reason, we conducted an experimental study where we assigned children to interact with an experimenter who engaged them in different types of conversations.
The experimental study makes us even more certain that children can learn emotion from conversations. These children (aged 5 to 8) were given the Test of Emotion Comprehension. One month later, we returned to read them eight stories about children who felt either ambivalent or hidden emotions. After reading the stories, children either 1) were asked to explain why the story character felt the way s/he did, 2) an experimenter explained the emotion to the child, or 3) the child was asked questions about the content of the story that were not related to emotions (e.g., where is the door?). We then re-administered the Test of Emotion Comprehension. Children who explained and children who were explained to, learned more about emotions than children who simply answered stories that were not related to emotion (Tenenbaum, Alfieri, Brooks, & Dunne, 2008).
What do these findings suggest for parents and teachers? Our studies suggest that children can learn emotions in everyday conversations. Parents and teachers should be encouraged discuss emotions with children. The good news is that whether parents prefer to explain or have the child explain is less important than simply discussing emotions. Thus, parents can engage children in these conversations however they wish.
Aznar, A., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2013). Spanish parent-child emotion talk and their children’s understanding of emotion. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 670. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00670
Cassidy, J., Parke, R.D., Butkovsky, L., & Braungart, J.M. (1992). Family-peer connections: the roles of emotional expressiveness within the family and children’s understanding of emotion. Child Development, 63, 603-618.
Izard, C., Fine, S., Schultz, D., Mostow, A., Ackerman, B., & Youngstrom, E. (2001). Emotion knowledge as a predictor of social behaviour and academic competence in children at risk. Psychological Science, 12, 18-23.
Pons, F., Harris, P.L., & de Rosnay, M. (2004). Emotion comprehension between 3 and 11 years: Developmental periods and hierarchical organizations. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1, 127-152.
Tenenbaum, H. R., Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., & Dunne, G. (2008). The effects of explanatory conversations on children's emotion understanding. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 26, 249-263.
Dr Ana Aznar is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Surrey. She is interested in how children learn from everyday interactions with significant adults in their lives, such as parents, teachers, and peers. She is currently working on a project lead by Dr Harriet Tenenbaum examining children’s understanding of peer rejection based on status.
Dr. Harriet Tenenbaum is a Reader at the University of Surrey. She is interested in children’s understanding of emotions, science, and discrimination in the context of important relationships. She is the editor of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.