How can parents support children who are at-risk for behavioral problems? A new study from Michigan State University (MSU) offers a simple intervention that helps toddlers begin to understand emotions and express their own emotional needs. The strategy, called emotion bridging, reduced behavioral problems in toddlers from a group with a high risk of behavioral issues. The findings suggest that talking to toddlers about emotions can help them understand their own emotional states.
The researchers observed 89 toddlers (aged 18 months to 2 years) from low-income families enrolled in Early Head Start Programs. The toddlers and their mothers read a wordless picture book, which depicted a girl who lost and found a pet. The researchers were interested in how mothers communicated the story’s emotions to their children. In particular, they observed how mothers used emotion bridging, a process involving identifying an emotion, explaining its context in the story, and relating it to the child’s life. Seven months later, the researchers observed the children in a follow-up visit.
At the follow-up visit, the researchers observed fewer behavioral problems in the children with the greatest risk. This may be due to the effects of emotion bridging, which provides toddlers with a paradigm for interpreting and expressing their own emotions. Learning simple words for expressing emotions and needs could reduce the frequency of toddlers acting out. The toddlers who benefited the most from emotion bridging were those with the highest risk and from the most disadvantaged households.
Teaching children about emotions is a long-term, but simple task that parents can engage in anytime.
“Our findings offer promise for a practical, cost-effective parenting strategy to support at-risk toddlers’ social and emotional development and reduce behavioral problems,” stated lead investigator Holly Brophy-Herb, professor of child development at MSU.
This research is published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
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