Use your words to help toddlers develop theirs

The Covid19 pandemic has brought a set of emotions that have surfaced in adults and children. Many people are feeling anxious during this time. Children can feel anxious about different things at different ages, and many of these worries are a normal part of growing up.

The difference between normal worry and anxiety disorders, is the severity of the anxiety. Feeling anxious is a natural reaction to stressful situations. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it interferes with a child’s ability to handle everyday situations, or impacts on things that most children of that age enjoy. Identifying and labelling emotions early on is important to facilitate the understanding and regulation of the emotions that your child is feeling.

Children learn best through play and social interactions and there is evidence that toddlers and preschool-aged children with developmental language disorder (DLD), often have more problem behaviours when compared to peers with typically developing language.

There are various views about how emotions develop in children, but we know that emotions are abstract. Research shows that language facilitates and speeds up the development of abstract categories such as emotions in young children, even when they are not able to say these words.

In addition, children with language disorders may have difficulty in social situations because they have difficulty interpreting conversations, understanding the rules of a game, participating in group conversations, understanding turn-taking conventions, or following the pace of the conversation. Given the importance of emotion recognition for social functioning, even at a young age, the social development of children with language disorders is at risk.

At around three years, children start understanding the emotional impact that situations have on emotions. Children acquire “scripted emotion knowledge”, i.e. they learn what emotion fits what kind of situation for most people in their social environment. For example,  happiness with a present, sadness when your pet dies, or anger when they draw on the wall.

IT IS IMPORTANT TO LABEL DEGREES OF EMOTION TO HELP DEVELOP RESILIENCE AND EMOTIONAL EQ (EMOTIONAL QUOTIENT) IN CHILDREN

How do you develop emotion talk?

Emotion talk/labelling involves much more than simply connecting words to emoticons. Emotion labelling is important to encourage children to compare features so that they can understand that happy is not the same as funny, and sad is not the same as angry. This is easier to understand when you examine how children begin saying words.

When toddlers begin talking, they may refer to all animals as “doggy” or “woo-woo”. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the word “woo-woo” is easier to say than dog. Secondly, the child is not yet able to discern the subtle difference between a dog, and a cat. Later on, the child may continue to call all pets “woo-woos”, but when you point to a picture of a cat, and ask what sound it makes, they will be able to say “meow” (or a variation of this).

Conceptually, they can discern the difference between a dog and cat, but they cannot yet articulate the words dog/cat. Labelling helps preserve these category boundaries by drawing attention to and refining the similar and dissimilar features and children soon learn that a Great Dane and a Maltese Poodle are both dogs.

Toddler Tantrums are a normal part of growing. Tantrums may occur because because they don’t have the language skills to understand or communicate how they are feeling. However, if you label every tantrum as cross/angry, it becomes more difficult for them to understand the subtle nuances in the continuum of emotions.

Here are a few scenarios:

  1. Your toddler takes a toy away from another child and the the other child cries. It could be anger but it could be disappointment or sadness.
  2. Your toddler hits another child. Is it anger or frustration?
  3. Your toddler spits her food out, or tips a bowl onto the floor. Is it anger or could it be disgust?
  4. Your toddler is playing and you interrupt her play and pick her up to go to bed. She stiffens her body as she is picked up, and throws herself backwards. Is it anger or is she just annoyed that you interrupted her? 
How to communicate emotions


The relationship of language and emotion in development is most often thought about in terms of how language describes emotional experiences with words that name different feelings. It is important to label degrees of emotion to help develop resilience and emotional EQ (emotional quotient) in children.

If you only label emotions in terms of their broad categories such as happy, sad and funny, the subtle nuances that differentiate degrees in these emotions may be not be learned.  While we are living in challenging times, the research is equivocal.

Use your words to help toddlers use theirs.

 

Nikki Heyman is a speech-language therapist in private practice. She has a Masters in speech-pathology from the University of the Witwatersrand and is  known as the tech-guru among colleagues. Nikki works with a range of paediatric language and learning difficulties and believes in creating relationships to foster ongoing learning. She has a special interest in autism and volunteers at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital on a monthly basis in a multi-disciplinary team.