In the early stages of my career as a practicing psychotherapist, a supervisor taught me I could learn more about my patients when I focused less on 'what' they had to say, and more on 'how' they said it. From the pitch and intonation in a person's voice to their body language and facial expressions, the spoken word is perhaps the least reliable indicator when it comes to conveying our honest thoughts and feelings to one another.
More ofen than not, the interpersonal conflicts and disagreements that I encounter among family members can be attributed to simple misunderstandings and miscommunications of the spoken word.
This dilemma becomes of particular importance when we consider the contrasting communication styles — both verbal and nonverbal — that ofen exist between parents and their still-developing children. For this insight into emotional awareness and communication styles, let's take a closer look at the role that parents play in modeling these abilities in their children, starting from an early age.
What the Research Says
One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how to be more emotionally competent, which means teaching them how to understand both their feelings and the feelings of others. A 2015 study conducted by Samantha Taylor-Colls and her colleagues at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (UK) contributed to an already-growing body of research that suggests children as young as infants, despite being preverbal, have the capacity to understand and interpret the emotions of others.
In their study, 77 infants were shown over 200 images of diferent facial expressions (happy, fearful and neutral) while their brain activity was measured via EEG recordings. In addition, parental responsiveness to their infant's cues was measured via observation and assessment of prolonged dyadic interactions.
The findings indicated that infants showed an amplified level of responsiveness to 'fearful' facial stimuli when compared to 'happy' or 'neutral' facial stimuli. Also, the infants whose mothers were assessed as more sensitive and attuned to their child's cues showed more responsiveness to 'happy' facial cues over 'neutral' ones. This potentially suggests that even in infancy, children are reinforced by warm and positive interactions and will direct their attention and behavior accordingly.
Findings like this give credence to the notion that children are digesting and interpreting emotions from the world around them immediately. This underscores the critical role that parents and other caregivers play in shaping their child's temperament and emotional competency.
Image via Pexels
Tips for Developing Your Child's Emotional Competency
1. Start young.
As the research on preverbal infants would suggest, children need not possess their language capacity to grasp how others are feeling. The more frequently we talk to and emotionally engage with our children from an early age, the more capable they are of developing their own emotional competency.
2. Be aware of the emotional climate in your household.
Children (in particular young children) are first and foremost 'feelings-driven' beings. This means they rely primarily on their emotional filter to learn from and interpret their surrounding world. The way that we talk to and treat ourselves, our partner and other members of the household can all have a profound impact on the psyche and emotional stability of your developing child.
3. Take ownership of your own feelings and actions.
Children are ofen more likely to do what we do than what we say. When we model for our children how to take accountability for our feelings and the actions that follow, we convey to the child that it's safe for them to do the same.
[Cover image via Pexels]
Dr. Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center, a comprehensive medical and mental health service clinic for children, adolescents, adults and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: email@example.com or visit his website at: www.drnatebalfanz.com