Teaching toddlers about emotions may reduce behavioral problems later on, say researchers.

The study, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, could ultimately help those most in need. Toddlers with higher risk, specifically those with more behavioral problems and from the most disadvantaged families, benefited most from being taught about emotion by their mothers.

“Our findings offer promise for a practical, cost-effective parenting strategy to support at-risk toddlers’ social and emotional development and reduce behavioral problems,” says lead author Holly Brophy-Herb, professor of child development at Michigan State University.

mom and toddler

‘Emotion bridging’

The research, part of a larger study funded by a grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services, involved 89 toddlers (ages 18 months to about 2 years) from low-income families enrolled in Early Head Start programs. Mothers were asked to look at a wordless picture book with their toddlers. The book included many emotional undertones as illustrations depicted a girl who lost and found a pet.

Brophy-Herb and her fellow researchers focused on mothers’ “emotion bridging” with the child. That involves mothers not only labeling the emotion (e.g., sad) but also putting it into context (e.g., She’s sad because she lost her bird) and tying it back to the child’s life (e.g., Remember when you lost your bear and you were sad?).

During a follow-up visit with the families, about seven months later, the researchers found fewer behavioral problems in the higher-risk children. Brophy-Herb says this might be because emotion bridging acts as a tool through which toddlers can begin to learn about their emotions and gradually learn simple words to express emotions, needs, and wishes, instead of acting out physically.

Mini-conversations

Helping young children understand emotion should be an ongoing, long-term strategy, Brophy-Herb says. Parents can talk to their children about emotion just about anytime—on a short car trip home, for example, or even standing in line at the grocery store. “Over time, these mini-conversations translate into a rich body of experiences for the child.”

Emotion bridging could be especially beneficial for families struggling with multiple stressors including economically disadvantaged families. Very young children in poor families are at greater risk for hearing fewer overall and words within a more limited range compared to children in middle- and upper-income families. As the new study indicates, mothers who were disadvantaged were engaging in high-quality language experiences with their toddlers.

At minimum, the study says, information on emotion bridging could be made available in pediatric primary care settings as part of bigger efforts to increase and diversify language between parents and young children.


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Andy Henion-Michigan State University
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