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Marc Dykeman
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Why It’s Good to Talk About Bad Stuff

By talking about emotional experiences and validating children’s feelings, parents can help them understand and regulate their emotions—which has benefits through adulthood

Talking to my mother has meant a number of different things to me over the years. Like many teenagers, there was a time it meant rebelling against her authority. Later, it meant challenging her beliefs with ones that I was developing. During early adulthood, my mother became a confidant. Questions like, “How was your day?” were opportunities to discuss what I thought was important, rather than simply making small talk. Today, I often find that my mother and I discuss things that I haven’t talked about before. I do a lot more listening now. However, those early conversations, even the heated arguments, remain the model from which all of our conversations still evolve. Recent research has brought the role of these mother-child conversations into clearer focus.

Study of the relationship dynamics between children and their caregivers is largely the domain of attachment theorists. Attachment theory is a model for human social development that sees the relationship between a child and caregiver as the model for that child’s future social relationships and ability to trust others. When an infant’s emotional needs are consistently met and he feels safe, secure and protected (e.g., gets picked up when crying, receives a positive response when smiling), he develops trust and forms a healthy, secure attachment to his caregiver. Inconsistent care, negative responses or neglect, however, lead to insecure attachments and can increase the risk of developing adjustment problems. Attachment theorists therefore consider this early relationship between a child and caregiver as fundamental to the child’s social development into adulthood.

“It is essential that young children’s feelings get the same level of attention as their thinking. Indeed, learning to manage emotions is more difficult for some children than learning to count or read.” —National Scientific Council on the Developing Child

Researcher Ross Thompson has focused on the association between the security of attachment and the development of emotional regulation in children by examining mother-child conversations and children’s understanding of emotions.

In one study mothers were instructed to prevent their four-and-a-half-year-old children from eating a snack until a later time. This interaction was videotaped and then shown independently to each mother and child. The mother and child were then asked to describe how the child felt when the snack was delayed. Mothers in more secure relationships with their children (as rated by the researchers) were more likely to identify the same emotion that their child reported feeling. If an adult doesn’t properly identify a child’s emotions, the child can become confused about those emotions and what she was truly feeling. And because many strategies for managing emotions are emotion-specific (i.e., dealing with anger should be addressed differently than dealing with sadness or fear), being in tune with what the child is feeling will enable the adult to better help the child.

The study went on to analyze conversations between the mother and child about recent events in which the mother or child felt angry or sad. Young children (not to mention many adults), don’t enjoy discussing upsetting events; yet the ability to talk about and process negative emotions is important because it allows children to explore their feelings and learn how to cope with issues and problems as they arise. The researchers hypothesized that children in more secure relationships would be more likely to open up, in part due to the fact that those mothers would be more likely to accept and validate the child’s viewpoint. As expected, securely attached children were less likely to avoid talking about their negative emotions, while avoidance increased for those in more insecure relationships. Somewhat unexpectedly, though, mothers who used validating comments were more likely to elicit open conversation even when their attachment to the child was less secure—suggesting that parents can reduce the likelihood of avoidance even when there is a lack of support from a strong attachment.

For children to explore difficult feelings and put them into context, the ability to talk about and process negative emotions it is important for them to be able to turn to adults who can help them cope with problems as they arise. In return, through secure attachments with those closest to them, a child is more likely to be able to trust others and, over time, to trust their own sense of what they are feeling. The child with the ability to self-regulate emotionally is more likely to have stronger peer relationships, better social problem-solving skills and higher self-regard.

So when your child comes to you with hurt feelings over being picked last for a playground game, or feels that a teacher is being unfair, your reaction matters. The common responses—“Oh, it’s just a phase; you’ll get over it” or “What did you do to make the teacher mad?”—deny your child’s feelings.

Such evidence reinforces the importance of sharing open conversations with children, and gives a constructive model to follow in those interactions: conversational validation. By understanding more about our conversations, parents, educators, counselors, family and community members can more fully engage children and enable their future development.

LEArn More:

“What Is Your Baby Telling You?” by Kelly Schmitt Gouss, on parents developing a secure emotional bond with their newborns.

“What Your Child May Not Be Learning,” by Kelly Schmitt Gouss, about the importance of social and emotional learning

Related Reading:

“Keys to Building Attachment with Young Children,” Sean Brotherson, North Dakota University Extension Service

Early Report, Spring 1996, Center for Early Education and Development, University of Minnesota

“Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains,” National Scientific Council on the Developing Child