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Emotional expression and language

Recently, I came across an article in The New Scientist about how language communicates and helps to shape emotions. I felt happy, excited, lucky, serendipitous, fortunate....

Watt Smith writes that language and emotion are strongly linked; brain imaging studies show that when parts of the brain associated with emotion are stimulated, so are the parts linked with language and making meaning. There are current theories that language can help us name and manage emotions and also bring emotions into being (for example, some languages have no word for 'worry' asking the question 'If we can't name it, do we feel it?').

Young children usually express emotions directly and physically - they make it clear what they're feeling! They also express themselves through their mark making, play and movement. The complex skill of expressing emotion in language involves reflection and emotional vocabulary. It is also vital for problem-solving, resolving conflicts and negotiating in social situations (not something a lot of adults would say they have achieved!).  

Language and emotional expression

Children usually start using emotional vocabulary at around 2 years old. The early concepts are ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. So far, there is very little agreement about the exact milestones of emotional expression through language. What is agreed is that as children begin to put sentences together (between ages 3 and 4) they are able to communicate more complex ideas and feelings. At around 4-5 they should be able to use language to negotiate and resolve disputes with other children.  

Researchers have found a link between the amount of emotional language used by parents at home and children’s vocabulary. Reisland (2006) writes about how a father's use of emotional vocabulary supported his child’s development of an emotional vocabulary at around 2 years old.

It also helped his daughter to both recognise emotions herself, and in social situations. Dunn et al showed that mothers' and older siblings' emotional language used with 18-month-old children was positively associated with each child's speech about emotions at 24 months. As we often find, children’s language reflects their home and social worlds.

However, a different set of researchers found that parents stopped using more complex vocabulary than happy/sad after their children reached about 2 because they were so skilled at identifying their children’s emotions. Children displayed these emotions physically and parents responded rather than identifying and labelling the emotions.

Reflecting on practice

How can we support children to develop the language of emotion?

  • Talk about emotions using a wide range of vocabulary. We often think that we need to keep it simple, and we do for very young children, however as children’s language skills and their ability to interact with other children develops they are able to process complex interactions. Exploring what is going on in groups, e.g ‘You look like you’re upset because Leia has the new pushchair’, and modelling emotional vocabulary can enhance and widen children’s understanding both of social situations and their own language skills.
  • Know when and how to talk about emotions. Research suggests that talking about emotions in a relaxed and comfortable way, e.g. when sharing books, has a more positive effect. Being neutral about emotions and not judging whether emotions were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ also supported children to use a wider range of emotional vocabulary.
  • Talking about our own emotions – which we may or may not do! Saying something like, ‘Oh no, I dropped the bananas. I’m really cross as we haven’t got any for snacks’, lets children see there is a reason for emotions. Situations happen and people respond to them differently. Another practitioner might have said ‘Oh no I dropped the bananas. Let’s put them on the shopping list for next time’. This might be the next step for the first practitioner but they need to process the emotion first before they move on to planning.
  • Tuning in. Listening to children can help us see and hear what children are saying, the emotional content of their message, as well as the language involved. This can help us support them through challenging situations and build their resilience.
  • Books. Talk about how characters respond to situations in books. Often even simple books have a narrative in which a character has a challenge they need to overcome or a puzzle they need to solve. For example, in Dear Zoo the central character is looking for a pet. How does he feel when this range of unsuitable pets are sent to him?
  • Supporting parents to talk about emotions and their own emotions – depending on how comfortable parents feel with this. To talk about emotions parents need to be able to reflect on and be relaxed enough to talk about a range of emotions. 

Children's emotional vocabulary is strongly linked to their experiences. Practitioners and parents can support this area of language development by focusing on the language they model with children, together with helping children think through different situations and scaffolding appropriate responses using the language of emotion. This both supports vocabulary development and builds children's ability to work with each other in groups. 

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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