Children are an emotional lot. That’s only half the truth, isn’t it? It’s not just children but people, adults and children, who are filled with emotions. We are all part of an “emotional lot” and that’s a good thing. Emotions are a gift. They help us realize and define our priorities. Who gets angry about something they care nothing about? Who gets happy over something they do not find valuable? Emotions arise in response to our priorities; and they help us better define those priorities.
Emotions also provide us with the energy to focus on our priorities. The energy we feel in response to anger, when managed properly and directed carefully, can help us resolve whatever aroused our anger. The energy of anxiety helps us to focus on the issue arousing our anxiety and seek a way to effectively address it. Happiness broadens our attention so we can become immersed in the joyous experience. Indeed, when we learn to manage the energy of our emotions, we can tweak our priorities and invest in growing more whole and connected.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? In order for emotions to help us grow, we need to learn how to manage them and the energies they arouse. The process of managing our emotions begins with having an emotional vocabulary. After all, if I have no emotional vocabulary, I have no way to express my emotions. As a result, I may go straight from feeling to action…with no buffer of thought in between. Consider a toddler who has little emotional vocabulary and cannot express his frustration. He quickly becomes frustrated, maybe even angry, and does what we have labeled as “throwing a tantrum” because he has no words to express his frustration. I have met many a child who did not have the language to express his frustration or anger so went straight from frustration to physically action toward the person frustrating him.
Having a broad emotional language, on the other hand, allows us to recognize and label our feelings. It also creates a buffer between the emotions and our actions in response to our emotions. Even the thought, “I’m so angry” puts a millisecond buffer between emotion and action…a millisecond that allows the neural pathway carrying our emotion to reach our prefrontal cortex and inform us of a more appropriate response, a response that will best serve our priorities.
Learning an emotional vocabulary begins in relationships, especially children’s relationship with their parents. Our children first learn their emotional vocabulary from us, their parents. As we label our emotions and their emotions, they begin to learn a broader vocabulary for their emotional experience. The broader the vocabulary, the broader their options for response. In fact, a series of five studies using the data from 5,520 toddlers showed that children learn emotional labels best when their parents provide information about the situation or actions around the emotion as well. For instance, rather than simply saying “You’re getting frustrated (angry),” a parent might say, “You’re frustrated (angry) because we can’t get ice cream right now.” Or when witnessing another person’s emotions, a parent might say, “Your friend was really happy to get that nice present from you.” Notice how these statements not only label an emotion, but they provide the context for that emotion as well. Giving the emotion a context and a label helps our children learn a broader emotional vocabulary. As our children learn a broader emotional vocabulary by hearing you label emotions and the context of those emotions, they will grow in their emotional intelligence. They will grow in their ability to respond appropriately and effectively to their own emotions.