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Emotions are learned

Emotions are communication. From a very young age we are learning the emotional skills we need to identify, express & manage our feelings. We learn how to do this through our social interactions & relationships. When it comes to emotions kids have two main tasks to master: 1) understand others’ emotions & 2) accurately convey their own.

As (Western) adults, we tend to have discrete categories for how we organise our emotions. By age 2, most children (~ 80%) can correctly identify someone who is ‘happy’. However, other emotions such as fear, anger & sadness, they have MUCH more difficulty. It appears that young children seem to only have two categories for emotions: ‘good’ & ‘bad’. It’s not until almost age 6 that most kids can clearly distinguish between more nuanced negative emotions - e.g. anger & disgust.

Children experience complex feelings just like adults. They get frustrated, excited, nervous, jealous, worried & embarrassed. However just because they feel these emotions doesn’t mean they have the emotional intelligence or language to understand & explain them.

Research shows children recognise emotions best when there are precise labels (“I’m angry”) or specific behaviours included (growling or yelling). In the real world we don’t always express emotions this clearly. This is where parents come in – we can help our children learn to process their own and others’ emotions. Where you can, try to label emotions for your child, using (depending on their age) simplified language.

When you teach your child to name their feelings you are helping them build an emotional vocabulary. With practice & repetition, they will be able to recognise & label these feelings on their own. By doing this, you are giving them the basics they need to understand & express their feelings appropriately.

It's important that we remember that children’s understanding of emotions is not adult-like. They start out with broad good/bad categories which become more complex & nuanced throughout childhood. Like so many other things, emotions are something they must LEARN to understand.

References: Russell & Widen 2002; 2004; 2008, Mondloch, Nelson & Horner 2013; Nelson & Russel 2011

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