By Jenna Weglarz-Ward, Ph.D.
Children begin to learn about relationships and language starting in the womb. As babies listen to their mothers talk to the clerk at the grocery store, sing to the radio, and chat with family members, they begin to develop a brain for language. Once born, they continue to listen to their mothers and family members use language to communicate with each other, solve problems, and develop relationships. Even before their first words, babies understand the language around them and their brains develop pathways to strengthen their ability to understand and express themselves.
At the same time, they are learning about the emotional environment. They experience stress, excitement, happiness, sadness, and frustration themselves and observe and feel other’s emotional states. They are learning that when Mom makes a certain face, she does not feel good but when her body feels a different way, she feels better. Similar to language, babies are developing neural pathways to help them learn what do with their own and other’s emotions.
Research has indicated that the earlier and more we talk to our babies, the better their outcomes will be. Additionally, children with strong emotional literacy have better academic success and less challenging behaviors . Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s  ground breaking work indicated that children who live in low incomes families are not exposed to as many words as children in more affluent homes, as many as 30 thousand less words before they enter kindergarten. This commonly referred to as the Word Gap. Additionally, vocabulary in lower income homes is more likely to be directive and negative (e.g, get your shoes, you’re in trouble). Children in more affluent homes are more likely to have exposure to a larger range of vocabulary. However, family income may not be the only factor that impacts the word exposure to children. Parents who struggle with mental health issues, are experiencing trauma or illness, are single parents, work long hours, have multiple children, or spend a lot of time with their smartphones, may be talking to their children less often than possible. Therefore, it is important to support all families in bridging the word gap.
Not only does this word gap impact language and cognitive outcomes including school readiness, a lack of learning and understanding of emotional words can impede social and emotional development. It is common that children with language delays also have challenges in making friends and identifying and coping with their emotions. Therefore, it is important to not only talk to our babies more, but make sure that we are including emotional vocabulary as well.
Dr. Dana Suskind at the University of Chicago has more recently expanded on this work through the 30 Thousand Word Initiative. Dr. Suskind, has been working to support parents and communities in talking to their children more in order to close this gap. In addition to the strategies we presented in our December webinar on emotional literacy such as expressing your own feelings, labeling children’s emotions, and reading and singing about emotions, Suskind  recommends the 3 T’s.
Tune In: Notice what the child is focused on and talk about that. Respond when a child communicates – including when a baby cries or coos.
Talk More: Narrate day to day routines, such as diaper changes and tooth brushing. Use details: “Let Mommy take off your diaper. Oh, so wet. Does that feel better now?”
Take Turns: Keep the conversation going. Respond to your child’s sounds, gestures and, eventually, words – and give them time to respond to you. Ask lots of questions that require more than yes or no answers.
What Emotional Words to Include?
Starting with basic emotions such as happy, sad, angry are great. However, adding more complex words, even early, develops a rich emotional catalog from which children can use as they learn to understand and express their emotions. It is important to include both positive and negative emotions in their vocabularies.
- Affectionate, agreeable, annoyed, awful
- Bored, brave, bummed, beaming
- Calm, capable, caring, cheerful, clumsy, confused, cooperative, creative cruel, curious
- Depressed, disappointed, disgusted, down, delighted
- Ecstatic, embarrassed, enjoying, excited
- Fantastic, fearful, fed-up, free, friendly, frustrated
- Gentle, generous, gloomy, guilty, glad
- Heavenly, hilarious
- Ignored, impatient, important, interested
- Jealous, joyful
- Lonely, lost, loving
- Peaceful, pleasant, proud, pleased, positive
- Relaxed, relieved
- Safe, satisfied, sensitive, serious, shy, stressed, strong, stubborn
- Tense, thoughtful, thrilled, troubled
- Unafraid, uncomfortable
- Weary, worried, worn out
While working with families, take time to share with them why it is important to share emotions with their children as well as how. In addition to modeling and practicing with parents, share resources available through our December webinar materials.
Image from Flickr, Simi and Rachael by Jerry John, CC BY-ND 2.0