How do you feel today? – Early emotional language

Eastside SpeechEarly Development

We learn about our feelings – both physical and emotional from our first day. If those early days and even weeks or months are unsettled or disrupted we easily miss out on those early learning experiences. As we settle into our lives in these early days, sometimes the interactions and routines that are established leave out the steps that help this learning.

Norman Doidge, in his book “The Brain That Changes Itself” (2010), p.227, points out:
“A mother who is with her baby during the critical period for emotional development and attachment is constantly teaching her child what emotions are by using musical speech and nonverbal gestures. When she looks at her child who swallowed some air with her milk, she might say, “there, there, honey, you look so upset, don’t be frightened, your tummy hurts because you ate too fast. Let mommy burp you, and give you a hug, and you’ll feel all right”. She is telling the child the name of the emotion (fright), that it has a trigger (she ate too fast), that the emotion is communicated by facial expression (“you look so upset”), that it is associated with a bodily sensation (a tummy cramp), and that turning to others for relief is often helpful (“let mommy burp you and give you a hug”). That mother has given her child a crash course in the many aspects of emotion conveyed not only with words but with the loving music of her voice and the reassurance of her gestures and touch…

“For children to know and regulate their emptions, and be socially connected, they need to experience this kind of interaction many hundreds of times in the critical period and then to have it reinforced later in life.Often when there are other difficulties we will cut to solving the problem or upset. The elements he talks about are useful to think about when we are helping children recognize and manage their emotions. These include:

  • The name of the emotion
  • The trigger
  • How we can tell/understand what is happening
  • Physical or bodily sensation
  • Seeking help

These can be communicated through our words, voice volume and tone, facial expressions and touch. We can also add some gestures, and later pictures to help the child understand and communicate what is going on. We experience feelings and emotions every day – so whatever we use needs to be available for calm, consistent use when the child or others close-by have these experiences.