Scientific evidence shows that the seeds for emotional development are planted in the first years of life and provide the foundation for social functioning. What is our role in nurturing this development? How can we support children in becoming socially competent adults who care about others and society?
Managing Negative Emotions
In his long career working with incarcerated violent offenders, psychiatrist James Gilligan found that all these crimes had one thing in common: they were caused by a feeling of shame and humiliation. Psychologist Richard Weissbourd, in his book The Parents We Mean to Be, refers to Gilligan’s research of over 25 years with prison inmates to illustrate the role that the persistent experience of destructive emotions —and the lack of strategies to deal with them— can play over a lifetime. More importantly, he highlights our responsibility as parents, educators, and members of the community to teach children from a very young age to manage negative emotions skillfully.
We don’t need to think of an outcome as tragic as going to prison for murder to understand its importance. Our ability to experience and deal constructively with negative emotions has countless day-to-day practical consequences. Think, for example, of a child who goes along with bullying because of the fear of rejection from his peers, or another one who cheats on a test because of the fear of embarrassment or disapproval. According to Dr. Weissbourd, children know that what they are doing is potentially harmful or unethical, but the lack of strategies to work with heavy doses of negative emotions can diminish moral impulses that would normally prevent them from committing these acts.
Developing Emotional Skills
- Identifying and understanding one’s own feelings
- Accurately reading and comprehending emotional states in others
- Managing strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner
- Regulating one’s own behavior
- Developing empathy for others
- Establishing and sustaining relationships.
Scientific research shows that emotional development is built into the architecture of children’s brains and is shaped by the environment in which they develop. Their interactions with caregivers and other significant adults are particularly important.
None of us are born knowing how to manage our emotions. Children’s ability to deal with overwhelming feelings and control them grows over time. They experience negative emotions when they are hungry or wet, and positive ones when they are being cared for. This association between positive emotions and responsive and nurturing caregiving provides them with an emotional foundation to anticipate and become aware of their own feelings and express them. It also allows them to learn to manage interactions skillfully with adults and peers.
Why Does it Matter?
Emotional development is related to later outcomes in life, such as the capacity to adapt in school, keep a job and thrive in different work environments, and more generally to form healthy, functional and lasting relationships. Also, poor emotional regulation is related to other domains of development and has been found to impair cognition.
The foundational role of emotional development for social functioning has clear implications for policy and programs. If we want children to grow up to be caring, compassionate and respectful adults, we need to be actively supporting and nurturing their emotional development from the very beginning. There are, however, important policy gaps in this regard that need to be addressed. Early childhood educators and providers are not often adequately trained to recognize and deal effectively with children who present social and relational issues. Similarly, there is a lack of support for parents who want to understand and manage emotional and behavioral problems.
How can We Support Children’s Emotional Development?
The Making Caring Common Project, an initiative led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, designed simple and effective strategies to support parents and educators in this direction. Many of these strategies have to do with helping children develop a sense of empathy and concern for others through modeling and providing concrete opportunities for practice. For example, one could expect children to routinely help with chores and only praise uncommon acts of kindness. The idea is that simply expected and unrewarded acts of kindness are more likely to become ingrained. In collaboration with Doing Good Together, they also developed a practical course to teach empathy in schools called Beyond our neighbors. It includes activities, assigned readings and take-home projects that can easily be incorporated within a school curriculum.
Emotional development starts early in life, in parallel with other key domains of child development such as cognition and language. Yet it has received much less attention in policy formulation and action as a critical aspect of human development. Addressing delays from early on and preventing potential psychological and relational problems that could arise can yield benefits for both the individual and society. Healthy emotional development forms the basis for creating successful and lasting relationships, and is considered to be a key ingredient for happiness and having purpose in life. In turn, socially competent adults who are caring, empathetic and respectful and collaborate well with others are likely to be a positive force for change.
As Aristotle once said: “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
How are your children learning to manage and express their emotions? Tell us in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.
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