RECOGNIZING THE ROLE THAT PARENTS PLAY IN SHAPING A CHILD’S ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE HOW THEY FEEL
By Dr. Nate Balfanz
Dr. Nate Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center (AMC), a comprehensive mental and medical health service clinic for expat children, adolescents, adults, and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Nate at: Nate.Balfanz@amc-shanghai.cn.
HOW DO WE HELP OUR CHILDREN TO DEVELOP AN EMOTIONALLY COMPETENT VOCABULARY?
In the early stages of my career as a practicing psychotherapist, a supervisor taught me how I could learn a great deal more about my patients when I focused less on “what” they had to say, and more on “how” they actually said it. From the pitch and intonation in a person’s voice to their body language and facial expressions, the spoken word itself is perhaps the least reliable indicator when it comes to conveying our honest thoughts and feelings to one another. More often than not, the interpersonal conflicts and disagreements that I encounter amongst family members in my consultation office can be parsed down to simple misunderstandings and miscommunications of the spoken word.
This dilemma becomes of particular importance when we consider the contrasting communication styles—both verbal and nonverbal—that often exist between parents and their still developing children. For the purposes of our discussion on emotional awareness and communication styles, let’s take a closer look at the role that parents play in modeling these abilities in their children starting from an early age.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS
One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how to be more emotionally competent, meaning teaching them how to understand both their own feelings and the feelings of others. A 2015 study conducted by Samantha Taylor-Colls and her colleagues at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (U.K.) contributed to an already growing body of research that suggests children as young as infancy age, despite being pre-verbal, have the capacity for understanding and interpreting the emotions of others. In their study, 77 infants were shown over 200 images of different facial expressions (“happy”, “fearful”, and “neutral”) while their brain activity was measured via EEG recordings. In addition, parental responsiveness to their infant’s cues was measured via observation and assessment of prolonged dyadic interactions. Findings indicated that infants showed an amplified level of responsiveness to “fearful” facial stimuli when compared to “happy” or “neutral” facial stimuli. In addition, the infants of mothers who were assessed as more sensitive and attuned to their child’s cues showed more responsiveness to “happy” facial cues over “neutral” cues, suggesting the potential that even in infancy children are reinforced by warm and positive interactions and will direct their attention and behavior accordingly. Findings such as this further give credence to the notion that children are digesting and interpreting emotions from the world around them right from the start, underscoring the critical role that parents and other caregivers play in shaping their child’s temperament and emotional competency.
TIPS FOR DEVELOPING YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONAL COMPETENCY
1) Start them young. As the research on pre-verbal infants would suggest, children need not possess their language capacity in order to grasp how others are feeling. The more frequently that we talk to and emotionally engage with our children from an early age, the more capable they are at developing their own emotional competency.
2) Be aware of the emotional climate in your household. Children (particular young children) are “feelings-driven” beings first and foremost, meaning that they rely primarily on their emotional filter to learn from and interpret their surrounding world. The way that we talk to and treat ourselves, our partner, and other members of the household can all have a profound impact on the psyche and emotional stability of your developing child.
3) Take ownership of your own feelings and actions. Children are often more likely to do what we do than to do what we say. When we model for our children how to take accountability for our own feelings and the actions that they lead to, we convey the message to the child that it’s safe for them to do the same.