Emotional Learning

by Annette Hernandez, Ph. D., Clinical Psychologist

Emotional Learning in the Pre-Verbal Child

Emotional learning has become a hot topic these days in the field of child development. Psychology experts are researching the ways we develop an emotional vocabulary and how we express, recognize, and manage our emotions. Recent studies suggest that individuals exposed to emotional learning early in life, have happier and more successful lives in the future. While it is not always practical or feasible to enroll all our kids in a formal Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program, there are simple things we can do to help our kids label their emotions. As adults, we are probably all familiar with the notions that simply stating our feelings out loud helps to diffuse those feelings and “center” us. For example, examine the following scenario. You become upset that your partner forgets to put the cap on the toothpaste after using it. Rather than saying, “it’s kind of frustrating when you forgot to put the cap back on the toothpaste, it leaks all over the place, the cat knocks it over, the kids get it on their clothing, etc. etc.”; you hold onto your frustration hoping it will go away, only to find yourself blowing up when he/she does something equally as frustrating and seemingly insignificant later in the day. If you express your emotion, in the moment…in a calm voice, looking the person in the eye, and using an appropriate level of physical contact (such as a hand on the other person’s shoulder); you convey your emotion providing a release for yourself and you are communicating with the other person. While the action described above may be relatively easy for an adult to do, how does it work for a young child, particularly one that is pre-verbal.

Young pre-verbal children are prone to tantrums or “meltdowns”, in part due to the fact that they are not able to express their emotions. You can help your child during these moments by giving a voice to their feelings. Picture the next scenario…it is getting close to dinner time and you’re preparing dinner which will be ready in 10 minutes. Your hungry toddler wants a cookie he spotted in the cupboard as you were reaching for your cooking supplies. He begins to cry pointing at the cookie. You refuse his request and he persists in his request eventually escalating into a screeching wail. Many parents will attempt to explain to the child that he cannot have a cookie before dinner with an explanation as to how cookies will spoil his appetite. The problem with this scenario is that this response (though reasonable for a ten year old) does not recognize or, more importantly, label the toddler’s emotion in that moment. A simple and effective way to use this opportunity to develop emotional learning in this circumstance would be to a)label the emotions, b)label what is causing the emotion, and c)offer an alternative option to the child, and d) establish physical contact. The parent in this circumstance has to stop what they are doing at that moment and apply the steps above. For example, kneel or bend down to establish eye contact with the child, and say to the child in a calm voice, “I know you really want that cookie (cause of the emotion) and it makes you really sad and mad (label the emotion) that I won’t give it to you”…”I can give you a carrot or piece of apple now (alternative option) and we will have dinner soon”, and give the toddler a hug or backrub (physical contact). The wording and behaviors listed above can be modified to fit a number of situations. In most circumstances, you may not get an immediate response but consistency and an even-tempered approach is sure to give your child the building blocks of emotional learning.

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