As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, many families are seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel. Masks have been lifted, travel bans have been eased and keeping children a safe distance from each other is no longer the norm. While this is encouraging news, parents have experienced unprecedented levels of stress in recent years, and new research suggests there is an increase in challenging behaviors and developmental delays in children born during or just before the pandemic (“The COVID Generation “). One area of particular concern is how years of limited social interaction — distant school, no birthday parties and playdates via Zoom — have impacted children’s social and emotional development.
As we continue to adjust and adapt to life after the pandemic, it is important to support children’s social and emotional awareness by building their language and communication skills.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we shared some strategies on a Brookings blog to help kids interpret people’s facial expressions when their faces were covered by masks. We were concerned about young children’s language development, as they rely on the facial expressions and intonation of their caregivers to regulate their response to people and new situations — a form of emotional communication developmental researchers call it social reference. Now, as we enter a new phase of COVID-19, we want to help families and caregivers support their children’s social and emotional development after many years of limited interaction. That is the subject of our new book The emotionally intelligent child.
Helping children build “emotional” language skills
One of the best ways to build children’s social and emotional skills is to improve their language and communication skills. Research supports that talking to children about emotions is one of the most important predictors of emotional competence — how children learn to express and control their emotions and recognize the emotions of others. Language is the bridge between self and others and there are many ways to support children’s growing language in the area of social and emotional awareness. Here are some strategies we suggest:
- Talk to your child about emotions in many different situations. For example, if you and your child are at the park and another child is afraid to go down the slide, use what you are observing as an opportunity to talk about feelings. Ask your child if they can name the feeling the child has on the slide. Then try asking your child why they believe the other child is feeling this way and encourage them to pay attention to the frightened child’s facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. This will help your child tune into nonverbal cues to recognize the feelings of others.
- When discussing emotions with your child, first wait for your child to say something and then share your thoughts. This gives your child a chance to develop their own understanding of emotions and allows them to use the vocabulary they know in context.
- Read stories to your child to build emotional vocabulary. Look for books that show relationships and have illustrations that convey emotion, and use language to describe how characters are feeling. Even if the story doesn’t specifically mention emotions, you can ask your child questions about the characters’ feelings and how the characters interact with each other. For example, you could ask, “How do you think the character is feeling right now?” and “What would you say to the character(s) to help the situation?”
- Let your child know that everyone has a private, mental world. Children in early elementary school discover that feelings can be hidden and realize that what is experienced on the outside may not match what is experienced on the inside. Share your spirit world so they can share theirs with you.
- Help your child understand that emotions are constantly changing. Play a game with your child: set a timer to ring every five minutes for 20 minutes, and then go about your business. When the timer goes off, share your feelings (write them down on a piece of paper). At the end of the 20 minutes, take stock of how many different feelings were felt.
Language is a powerful tool that allows us to connect with others and understand ourselves. As we continue to adjust and adapt to life after the pandemic, it is important to support children’s social and emotional awareness by building their language and communication skills. We outline many other tools in our book for being “parents with patience” and promoting children’s development while they gain social awareness and emotional balance.