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Teaching Children to Read Emotions

Emotional understanding through books

Books can give children a window into the emotional world. Through the eyes of a character in a story, children can explore feelings and viewpoints other than their own. They can see the social and emotional consequences of different actions without having to live through those consequences. They can find a hero to emulate or a peer who understands what they’re going through. Reading or listening to books allows children to have an observer’s perspective on emotional experiences.

Some of my favorite times that I’ve spent with my children have involved reading aloud to them. I’ve enjoyed the coziness of snuggling with them while we read and the fun of getting engrossed in a good story together. But recent research by Celia Brownell and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that reading may also be a way that parents can help children learn about the emotional world.

The researchers invited parents (or other primary daytime caregivers) and their 18- to 30-month old children into the lab, and had them read two picture books about emotions: Feelings by Aliki and The Feelings Book by T. Parr. In two different studies, they found that parents who more often asked their toddler to think about the feelings shown in the books had children who more often and more quickly shared with or helped an adult. Other researchers have found that parents talking about emotions while reading picture books is linked to greater emotional understanding in toddlers.

This study was cross-sectional and correlational, so we can’t say for sure whether the parent’s emotion talk caused the children’s kindness. It’s possible that kind children are interested in feelings and that interest causes their parents to talk about feelings more. Or, maybe some other variable, such as emotional maturity causes both more talk about emotions and more kindness. To evaluate a causal relationship, we’d need experimental studies that involve giving kids a dose of feelings talk and seeing if it increases their kindness compared to kids who don’t get the feelings talk.

Nevertheless, the idea that talking about feelings while reading books together could be a vehicle for fostering children’s kindness is intriguing. Here are some examples of the types of questions that the researchers found were associated with greater kindness:

- "Is he happy now?"

- "Is he happy or sad?"

- "How is he feeling?"

- "Why is he sad?"

- "Is he sad now because he lost his ice cream?"

- "Does that make him happy?"

How might questions like these encourage kindness? It may be that talking about feelings with an adult helps kids gain greater understanding of how others’ emotional reactions, which enables them to be more aware of when someone needs help. Parents’ discussion of emotions might also communicate to children that feelings matter, and that we should respond in caring ways to others’ feelings.

Related posts:

What Friends Teach Children

What Are Social Skills?

Children’s Growing Friendships


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. Google+ Twitter: psychauthormom

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development.

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Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission
Source: Eileen Kennedy-Moore, used with permission

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-- Have you ever wanted a parenting course you could do at YOUR convenience? Check out this fun and fascinating audio/video series on children’s feelings and friendships from The Great Courses®: Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. || Topics include: Teaching Kids to Care; Developing Genuine Self-Esteem; How Kids Manage Anxiety and Anger; Playing Well With Others; Growing Up Social in the Digital Age. VIDEO preview.

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-- Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential || Chapters include: Tempering Perfectionism; Building Connection; Developing Motivation; Finding Joy. VIDEO preview.

-- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends || Chapters include: The Shy Child; The Little Adult; The Short-Fused Child; The Different Drummer.

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photo credit: “Adolfo reads aloud to his little sister” by Ultrakickgirl / CC BY 2.0


For further reading:

Brownell, C. A., Svetlova, M., Anderson, R. Nichols, S. R., & Drummond, J. (2013). Socialization of early prosocial behavior: Parents’ talk about emotions is associated with sharing and helping in toddlers. Infancy, 18, 21-119.

Taumoepeau, M., & Ruffman, T. (2006). Mother and infant talk about mental states relates to desire language and emotions understanding. Child Development, 77, 465-481

Taumoepeau, M., & Ruffman, T. (2008). Stepping stones to others’ minds: Maternal talk relates to child mental state language and emotions understanding at 15, 24, and 33 months. Child Development, 79, 284-302.

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