Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Mother-child emotion talk
How do mothers talk to young children about emotions?
Lucy is 4 years old. She enjoys reading, playing with her dolls, and dancing. Lucy lives with her parents and older brother, Mark. Lucy's family recently returned from a holiday at the beach. Whilst they were on the holiday, Lucy lost her favourite doll. Lucy was devastated. Lucy screamed and cried when she realised her doll was missing. While distressed, she broke Mark's favourite toy. After Lucy broke Mark's toy, he was very upset and angry.
What could help Lucy understand and process the loss of her favourite doll? How could Lucy learn that her reaction was socially unacceptable? Should the mother talk to her daughter and son in the same way? This chapter aims to answer these questions. In particular, this chapter examines how mothers talk to children about emotions.
Children spend a significant amount of time learning from their parents. Managing emotions are one of the crucial life skills that parents teach their children. Socialisation of children's emotions is primarily achieved through conversations, particularly between mothers and children (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2019). Through these conversations, children learn what emotions are, how to process emotions, how to regulate emotions, and how to appropriately display emotions.
This chapter starts by defining what emotions are and how they develop throughout childhood. It then look at what emotion talk is, the different contexts mothers use to engage in emotion talk, and the benefits of emotion talk. Finally, it discusses the implications arising from different genders and cultural backgrounds.
Emotions are complex and affect how a person experiences a given situation. Being able to understand and regulate emotions effectively can affect social competence, psychological well-being, cognitive functioning and moral sensitivity (Thompson, 2011). Therefore, the development of emotions throughout childhood is vital to the development of life skills, and can have long lasting effects.
Development of emotions in childhood
Throughout childhood, children develop emotion understanding, emotion regulation, and theory of mind. As children get older, they use these skills in flexible, organised ways, to meet inter and intra personal demands of the environment (Miller-Slough, Zeman, Poon, & Sanders, 2016).
Emotion understanding is the ability to identify emotions, understand what caused the emotional response, understand that what people display and feel can be different, and identify the cultural rules about displaying emotions (Blankson, O' Brien, Leerkes, Marcovitch, & Calkins, 2011). Emotion regulation consists of behaviours, skills and strategies that inhibit and enhance emotional experiences to accomplish goals (Benga, Susa-Erdogan, Friedlmeier, Corapci, & Romonti, 2019). Theory of mind is the appreciation that other people have cognitive states, such as beliefs and knowledge, that are different to our own (Lane, Wellman, Olson, LaBounty, & Kerr, 2010). All three are required for mature social cognition.
By the age of 2, most children can correctly identify basic emotions with clear facial expressions, such as happiness and sadness (Van Der Pol et al., 2015). However, they are unable to identify more complex emotions, such as fear.
By 3 years of age, children understand that certain situations can elicit certain emotions (Lane et al., 2010; see Figure 1). For example, they understand that if another kid took a toy off them, it would make them sad. They also understand that other people may have different emotions to what they would experience in a similar situation.
As theory of mind continues to develop, emotion understanding does too. 4 year olds can understand that desires and beliefs may underlie emotional reactions, such as happiness and surprise (Lane et al., 2010). They also understand false beliefs; that people hold beliefs contrary to reality. For example, a 4 year old could understand that another child thinks fairies are real, and it makes them happy, even though fairies are not real.
By the age of 5, children are able to identify complex emotions, such as anger, fear, disgust and shame (Van Der Pol et al., 2015). They also have greater emotion understanding, as they recognise that people may express emotions which are different to how they are really feeling (Lane et al., 2010).
Mothers' shaping of children's emotions
Parents have the largest influence on the shaping of children's emotional development. Mothers socialise their child's emotions through their own emotional expressiveness in front of the child, their reactions to their child's emotions, and emotion talk (Van Der Pol et al., 2015).
Mothers can be, and often are, a model for their child's behaviour. When mothers express an emotion, or show no emotion to a situation the child observes, the child then internalises whether it is acceptable to express or suppress emotions (Miller-Slough et al., 2016).
Mothers provide a direct response to their child when their child expresses an emotion. This response provides feedback to the child about their emotional display (Miller-Slough et al., 2016). A supportive response may encourage future expressions, and a dismissive response may discourage future expressions. For example, a child who has a tantrum in a shopping centre may receive negative feedback in the form of negative punishment, with the removal of TV privileges. This would ideally reduce the likelihood of the emotional display in the future, thus shaping their child's emotion understanding and emotion regulation.
Mothers shape children's emotions through emotion talk. Mother-child emotion talk occurs when a mother has a conversation with their child about emotions. This could be emotions experienced by a character in a book, an event that happened in the past, or while playing a game. The next section of this chapter explores emotion talk in detail.
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Mother-child emotion talk
Mothers play a significant role in shaping children's emotions. Small, everyday activities and conversations collectively work to improve a child's emotion understanding and regulation. This section explores emotion talk in greater detail, the contexts mothers use to engage in emotion talk, and the benefits.
Emotion talk provides children with practical examples of how emotions are felt and perceived. Through emotion talk, children learn to correctly identify their own and others emotions, how to appropriately express emotions, and how to communicate and understand their emotions (Bailey, Denham, & Curby, 2013).
When mothers talk to their children about emotions, they help clarify the child's emotional state, bring the child's awareness to their own emotions, and teach them how to respond appropriately (Blair et al., 2014). This provides children the opportunity to link their feelings, expressions, situations and words into something they can understand and discuss. Children are then able to improve their emotion regulation skills and emotion understanding during social interactions. However, in order to successfully improve the child's emotion skills, parents need to elaborate on emotions, not just label them. Mothers who elaborate on emotions, and refer to expression and causes of emotions, improve the development of emotion understanding and perspective taking in children (Van Der Pol et al., 2015).
Emotion talk is not consistently applied across positive and negative experiences, or with children of different ages. Mothers and children discuss positive and negative emotional experiences differently. In a study by Manczak et al. (2016), mothers used more specific emotion words, and offered more explanation during conversations about negative events. Children also initiated more emotion words and more specific emotions during conversations about negative events. Mothers also alter the way they talk to their children about emotions based on the child's emotional understanding. As children begin to talk more about emotions themselves, mothers decrease emotion talk and limit their own verbal contributions (Van Der Pol et al., 2015).
Contexts mothers engage in emotion talk
Depending on the context they are in, mothers and children adjust their emotion talk. The three typical family interactions mothers use to engage in emotion talk, are storybook reading, reminiscing, and play (Kucirkova & Tompkins, 2014).
Throughout a story, emotions are embedded in relationships between characters, and elicited through different events the characters experience. As books usually have a narrative, they require literacy competence, so the mother takes control (Melzi, Schick, & Kennedy, 2011). The amount the child participates depends on how much the mother engages child and the content of the story.
Personalising the story to the child is an important strategy to increase the child's interest in, and facilitate their understanding of, the book (Kucirkova & Tompkins, 2014). For example, the story can be personalised to the child by using their name for the main character (see Figure 2). Another strategy to improve the child's involvement is the use of images. Visual images in books elicit children's emotion talk (Kucirkova & Tompkins, 2014), prompting them to participate in emotion talk.
Mothers personalise the content of their emotion talk based on the child's emotion understanding. A study by Van Der Pol et al. (2015) found that mothers who read to their 3 year old's elaborated more on anger, fear, and happiness, than mothers who read to their 2 year old children. However, mothers who read to 2 year old's focused more on sadness.
Melzi et al. (2011) described three types of narrators. Firstly, describer style is a narrator who reads the text, but does not engage the child in any conversation about the plot. Secondly, collaborators invite the children to participate in the story telling and provide them with positive feedback. Thirdly, comprehenders engage children to draw inferences and make predictions about the story. Melzi et al. (2011) found that mothers who acted as the main narrator, provided extra information during the storybook reading, and maintained the flow of conversation, were most effective. Their children were attentive during the story and participated in answering and asking questions.
Reminiscing occurs when a mother and child talk about specific past events. All mothers engage in conversations about past events with their children; however, the way mothers structure and guide these conversations differ (Coppola, Ponzetti, & Vaughn, 2014). Of particular importance to reminiscing is the extent mothers elaborate on, and evaluate, important content.
When a child discusses past events with their mother, the mother provides feedback by confirming or denying the accuracy of the child's recollection (Van Der Pol et al., 2015). The mother can then elaborate further on the event. Coppola et al. (2014) conducted a study which found that mothers engaging in reminiscing were most effective when they provided the child with new information and asked open-ended questions that encouraged the child's participation. However, mothers who elaborated less and asked a smaller number of redundant questions, were less effective in improving the child's emotion understanding.
The focus of reminiscing is directly on the child's experience. A study by Kucirkova and Tompkins (2014) across the three main contexts of emotion talk found that mothers discussed the child's own emotions significantly more frequently in reminiscing than in storybook reading or play. In storybook reading and play, where mothers rely on the use of artefacts such as pictures or toys, mothers and children discussed othersemotions more frequently. By focusing on the child's own emotions, reminiscing allows the child to interpret their experience, recognises antecedents and consequences, and what is an appropriate way to express emotions (Miller-Slough et al., 2016; Zaman & Fivush, 2013).
When a mother and child play together, they have the opportunity to act out different scenarios. The child can experience and develop emotional reactions in a safe environment in advance of being in similar situations in the real world.
Kucirkova and Tompkins (2014) found similar results between their storybook reading task and their play task. They found that during play, mothers and children mostly talked about others emotions. They also found that mothers spoke about their own, and their child's, emotions; whereas, children focused on their own emotions significantly more than their mother's emotions. Children also discussed emotions from their perspective, and the perspective of the toy they interacted with.
Through play, children can enhance their emotion regulation skills. When playing games with rules, children learn to inhibit impulses. This improves their emotion regulation skills, which can be extended to non-play scenarios (Lincoln, Russell, Donohue, & Racine, 2017; see Figure 3).
Benefits of emotion talk
The more often children engage in emotion talk with their mothers, the better their emotion understanding and emotion regulation skills (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2019). Children with greater emotion understanding do better academically, are more popular among their peers, and have lower levels of psychopathology (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2019; Manczak et al., 2016). In addition, when children are able to identify and regulate their emotions, they are less likely to exhibit externalising or internalising behaviours (Bowie et al., 2013).
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Factors affecting emotion talk
Emotion talk does not have the same effect for everyone. Some people may benefit more from storybook reading reminiscing, or play, based on individual differences. However, these differences may be also be due to differences between gender, or differences between cultures.
Influence of gender
There are conflicting views within the literature about whether emotion talk with sons compared to daughters differs. Bailey et al. (2013) conducted a study to evaluate these differences. They found that mothers asked more questions of their daughters about emotions and interpersonal relationships than their sons. They also found that a daughter's emotional knowledge increased with more questions, while a son's emotional knowledge did not (see Figure 4). Other studies have also found that mothers talk more frequently about emotions, and are more elaborative, with daughters than with sons (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2019; Manczak et al. 2016; Van Der Pol et al., 2015). These differences for children aged 1-12 were found across cultures and socio-economic status, and across emotional talk contexts (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2019).
If children were aware that mothers talk about emotions more with daughters, they may learn that it is more acceptable for girls to express emotions than boys (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2019). This may result in girls developing greater emotion skills, and obtaining greater benefit from emotional talk, than boys. Similarly, the literature found implicit gender stereotyping (Bailey et al., 2013). When discussing pictures in storybooks, mothers labelled pictures depicting angry children as boys, and sad children as girls (Van Der Pol et al., 2015). This is an implicit emphasise on gender categories through gender labels.
Although some studies found that mothers spoke to daughters and sons differently, other studies found no differences (Van Der Pol et al., 2015; Zaman & Fivush, 2013). This could be due differences in the age studied, settings, or contexts. The meta analysis conducted by Aznar and Tenenbaum (2019), analysing 34 studies, found no significant difference in the frequency mothers engaged in emotion talk with daughters compared to sons. However, there is currently no meta-analysis exploring whether the elaboration, content, or valence of emotions differs.
Cultures are often described as individualistic and collectivist. The cultural differences between these two models can affect the upbringing of children due to societal values. For example, Coppola et al. (2014) highlighted that Western, individualistic, cultures value the development of independence. Non-Western, collectivist, cultures value unity and selflessness. In their study, Westerners were more elaborative in reminiscing than non-Westerners. Coppola et al. stated that this was supportive of the goal of reminiscing, which is an independent notion of the self.
Melzi et al. (2011) conducted a study evaluating Latino mothers and European American mothers engagement with their children during reminiscing and storybook ready. They found that Latino mothers adapted their participation role to the context. When they were reminiscing, they were an audience to their child. When they were reading, they were a narrator. In contrast, European American mothers engaged with the child as a co-construct of narratives, regardless of context.
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None of the three contexts work better for one gender over the other. Therefore, the context Lucy and Mark's mother uses is unlikely to make a difference based on the child's gender. The benefits of emotion talk will still help both children process their experiences. Reminiscing would provide Lucy the opportunity to discuss her lost doll and emotional outburst. It would also provide Mark with the opportunity to discuss his reaction to his toy being broken.
Emotion talk would benefit Lucy by providing her with greater emotional understanding, the chance to learn why her reaction was socially unacceptable, and how she could react in the future; benefiting her emotion regulation skills.
Mother-child emotion talk is an important part of a child's emotional development. Mothers engage in emotion talk when they read storybooks, reminisce, and play, with their child. Emotion talk has multiple benefits, including increased emotion understanding and emotion regulation. This enables children to understand their own, and others emotions, and how to appropriately display them.
There are a few inconsistencies in the literature regarding the effect of emotion talk with daughters compared to sons. One view is that daughter's emotional knowledge improves more than a son's the more questions the mother asks. Another view is that there is no difference.
In regards to cultural differences, individualistic and collectivist cultures vary in how they engage with their children, reflecting the individual cultural values.
Studying mother-child emotion talk develops the understanding of how children learn to identify emotions, how they understand their emotions, and how they learn to regulate emotions. This research can then be applied to improve emotion development in children, by altering the way mothers engage in emotion talk.
- Attachment type and emotion (Book chapter, 2016)
- Emotional development in children (Book chapter, 2010)
- Emotional regulation in children (Book chapter, 2018)
- Parenting and emotional development in children (Book chapter, 2013)
Bailey, C.S., Denham, S.A., & Curby, T.W. (2013). Questioning as a component of scaffolding in predicting emotion knowledge in preschoolers. Early Child Development and Care, 183(2), 265-279. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2012.671815
Benga, O., Susa-Erdogan, G., Friedlmeier, W., Corapci, F., & Romonti, M. (2019). Maternal self-construal, maternal socialization of emotions and child emotion regulation in a sample of Romanian mother-toddler dyads. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2018.02680
Blair, B.L., Perry, N.P., O'Brien, M., Calkins, S.D., Keane, S.P., & Shanahan, L. (2014). The indirect effects of maternal emotion socialization on friendship quality in middle childhood. Developmental Psychology, 50(2), 566-576. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033532
Blankson, A.N., O' Brien, M., Leerkes, E.M., Marcovitch, S., & Calkins, S.D. (2011). Differentiating processes of control and understanding in the early development of emotion and cognition. Social Development, 21(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9507.2011.00593.x
Bowie, B.H., Carrere, S., Cooke, C., Valdivia, G., McAllister, B., & Doohan, E.A. (2013). The role of culture in parents' socialization of children's emotion development. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 35(4), 514-533. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193945911411494
Coppola, G., Ponzetti, S., & Vaughn, B.E. (2014). Reminiscing style during conversations about emotion‐laden events and effects of attachment security among Italian mother–child dyads. Social Development, 23(4), 702-718. https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12066
Kucirkova, N., & Tompkins, V. (2014). Personalization in mother-child emotion talk across three contexts. Infant and Child Development, 23(2), 153-169. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.1814
Lane, J.D., Wellman, H.M., Olson, S.L., LaBounty, J., & Kerr, D.C. (2010). Theory of mind and emotion understanding predict moral development in early childhood. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28(4), 871-889. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151009X483056
Lincoln, C.R., Russell, B.S., Donohue, E.B., & Racine, L.E. (2017). Mother-child interactions and preschoolers' emotion regulation outcomes: Nurturing autonomous emotion regulation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(2), 559-573. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-016-0561-z
Manczak, E.M., Mangelsdorf, S.C., Mcasams, D.P., Wong, M.S., Schoppe-Sullivan, S., & Brown, G.L. (2016). "How did that make you feel?": Influences of gender and parental personality on family emotion talk. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: Journal of Developmental Psychology, 62(4), 388-414. https://doi.org/10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.62.4.0388
Melzi, G., Schick, A. R., & Kennedy, J. L. (2011). Narrative elaboration and participation: Two dimensions of maternal elicitation style. Child Development, 82, 1282–1296. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01600.x.
Miller-Slough, R., Zeman, J., Poon, J., & Sanders, W. (2016). Children’s maternal support-seeking: Relations to maternal emotion socialization responses and children’s emotion management. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(10), 2009-3021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-016-0465-y
Thompson, R.A. (2011). Methods and measures in developmental emotions research: Some assembly required. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 110(2), 275-285. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2011.04.007
Van Der Pol, L.D., Groeneveld, M.G., Van Berkel, S.R., Endendijk, J.J., Hallers-Haalboom, E.T., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., & Mesman, J. (2015). Fathers’ and mothers’ emotion talk with their girls and boys from toddlerhood to preschool age. Emotion, 15(6), 854-864. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000085
Zaman, W., & Fivush, R. (2013). Gender differences in elaborative parent–child emotion and play narratives. Sex Roles, 68(9), 591-604. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-013-0270-7
Support with teaching children about emotions:
- Helping kids identify and express feelings (Kids Helpline, 2018)
Using technology to teach children about emotions: