There’s a story in our family that has become a bit of a legend. My son, 2-years-old at the time, and his grandmother were taking a walk through the neighborhood when they happened upon a fire truck — roaring away from the fire station, lights on, with lots of commotion. Grandma says, “Wow, look at that fire truck!” My son gets a serious look of concern on his face, turns to look at her, and says: “I hope everyone is okay.”
This story has been told and retold so many times. What a wonderful, kind, sensitive, caring boy I raised. Right? Naturally, research suggests otherwise. But I don’t need textbooks and research to tell me I’m not the only source of his well-developed sense of emotional understanding. I have a daughter to remind me.
Just last week, on the way home from school, my daughter told me that her friend had been crying at school because she missed her mother and wanted her blanket. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” I responded. “What did you do to help her?” I asked. “Nothing, of course,” she replied. “My teachers took care of her. I just played.”
Both nature and nurture play a role in the development of skills like empathy, and the ability to recognize and respond to emotional cues. And just like any other area of development, some children’s knowledge, skills, and abilities grow at a faster rate than those of others.
Children may have an affinity for mathematics but struggle with climbing on the jungle gym. Others might write in full sentences by Pre-K, but need constant coaching to enter a group play experience. Emotional sensitivity is, in many ways, no different. And as parents and educators, it is important that we recognize our ability to encourage emotional understanding, just as we might nurture other areas of development where our children need more support.
Understanding the developmental progression is critical to providing that support. Responding to the emotional cues of others begins when an infant smiles at the sound of his mother’s laughter. It is evident when a third grader offers assistance to an embarrassed peer who doesn’t know the answer to a homework question. Understanding this progression allows us to not only accurately identify where a child’s skills and abilities fall along this path, but to intentionally support his or her development.
Here are three strategies that parents can use to support their child’s emotional understanding:
1. Labeling: Help children to label emotions and their causes. Ask children to consider why their friends or classmates may behave or act in a certain way. “Heather is sad because she wanted a turn on the swing.” “Micha is happy because he sees Nana.”
Labeling your own feelings and talking about how you felt as you share experiences from your life can establish critical reference points for children. Talk about things that made you happy, scared, excited, and anxious. Explain and model some of the ways you expressed your emotions and the kinds of responses from others that you appreciated.
2. Making Faces: Although it might seem obvious to most grownups, asking children to identify and recognize physical manifestations of emotions can also support the development of understanding and empathy. Parents and educators can help children detect and interpret cues about how someone feels.
Shared reading time can be a powerful way to help children describe a range of emotions and consider the feelings depicted by characters in books. Discuss why the characters in the story act the way they do and how others respond to those emotions. Carefully consider the ways in which illustrations in books depict a character’s feelings. “Oh, she looks disappointed. Her forehead is all wrinkled.” Or, “She’s looking down and the corners of her mouth are turned down.” You can take turns with your child naming an emotion and showing the facial expression or body cues that demonstrate the feeling.
3. Explain Why: Taking the time to describe the reason for your response to a child’s emotional expression can also help young learners to identify patterns and appropriate responses. Don’t take for granted that young children will understand or appreciate your own response to the emotions of others. Explain, “I gave Shanai a big hug and rubbed her back because she missed daddy,” or, “Sometimes cuddling can help someone feel better when they’re sad.”
As children mature, our opportunity to develop and support emotional understanding doesn’t end. Older children may struggle to understand more complex emotional reactions involving multiple and occasionally opposing feelings about the same event. A news article about a racecar driver’s fear and enthusiasm, or a storybook character’s sadness about losing his barn in a storm paired with gratitude for a neighbor’s support, can provide context to navigate and respond to their own, sometimes conflicting, emotions.
My daughter is fortunate that she has good teachers both at home, in her big brother, and at school, where her teacher beautifully modeled a caring response to the friend who was missing her mother and wanted her blanket. She will benefit from supports that bridge her experiences at home and at school as she develops deeper and more consistent emotional understanding. With our intentional support, a child’s development and learning in all areas can flourish.