The language of Emotions
Language skills underpin a person’s thinking and behaviour. We use our internal dialogue (language) to make sense of our experiences and respond to the world around us. We use language to compare, contrast, categorise, label and describe our emotions and experiences. Language also helps us to problem solve, make good choices and learn from our experiences. Consequently, young people with language difficulties are more likely to struggle with managing their emotions and regulating their behaviour.
Consider the following example…
A boy is talking to his friend during a Math lesson. The teacher asks the boy to stand up while she reprimands him in front of the entire class. He feels his hands shaking, his heart beating faster and his face growing hot. The boy with strong language skills will have a better chance of recognising and labeling this emotional state as being ‘embarrassed’. He will remember that he doesn’t get into trouble very often and knows that he is in trouble because he did the wrong thing. He manages to stay calm and uses his ‘thinking brain’ to make a good choice. He decides that the best thing to do is to sit down quietly and make sure that he concentrates for the rest of the lesson.
The boy with impaired language skills will have a more limited ability to interpret his feelings and label his emotions. He will experience big overwhelming feelings in his body and will become angry. His ‘emotional brain’ takes over and his ‘thinking brain’ switches off. This makes it hard for him to think clearly and calm down. He is very aware of all the children looking at him and hears laughing. He remembers that he gets into trouble a lot and is often bullied by other children. He decides that the teacher is picking on him and it’s unfair that he is the only one in trouble – his friend was talking too! He decides that no one likes him and that he needs to get out of this place. He pushes his desk over and storms out of the classroom.
How can parents help?
Good thinking can only happen when you are calm. If young people respond to a problem when they feel angry, worried, scared or sad they will be more likely to react without thinking. Being able to recognise and label feelings is an important first step for helping them to manage their emotions and solve their problems more successfully.
The first and most important step when helping your child to deal with their feelings is to keep yourself calm. Stop what you’re doing, sit with your child and use a gentle voice and concerned or interested face. Encourage them to talk about their experience “tell me what happened first…”, “what happened after…”, “how did that make you feel?” Listen to and acknowledge their experience “that must have been hard” or “I can see why you are upset”. Then give their feelings a name “getting in trouble in front of everyone must have been really embarrassing”.
Once you have explored your child’s experience, encourage them to think about other people’s perspectives “I wander what __ was feeling…” Help them to talk about other ways that they could have solved the problem, or think of ways to avoid the problem in the future. Young people with language difficulties are likely to have difficulty with long discussions about thoughts, feelings and problems. Use visuals to help them express themselves and understand. Encourage them to write it down, map it out, use numbers to list steps or draw pictures of people with thought bubbles and feelings – use whatever works and helps your child to express themselves. Adults should avoid engaging young people in these discussions when they are in an elevated emotional state. Always allow time to cool off before attempting to reflect on behaviour.
Children and teenagers are still learning how to overcome problems and manage their emotions. Spending time talking about their experiences and feelings will help them to understand why they acted in a certain way, and learn new ways of coping or responding in the future. Having another person listen to and validate their feelings will also help them to be more open to talking about other people’s perspectives and ideas.
How can Speech Pathology help?
Speech Pathologists can help young people learn how to identify, label and overcome challenging emotions. Learning to identify emotions in their body before they ‘lose their cool’ is the first step in helping young people to take control and use a ‘thinking response’. We might start by teaching them how to tune into their ‘body feelings’ and environment – “What can you see and hear that tells you what is happening around you? What can you feel inside your body that tell you what you are feeling? What can you remember from past experiences that tells you more about what’s happening?”
Once a young person learns how to make meaning of what is happening around them and within them, they can begin to learn how to manage their feelings and solve problems more successfully. For young people who have impaired problem solving skills, assessment and therapy can provide support for specific areas of difficulty. Thinking about what might happen next (predicting) or what caused a problem to happen are examples of areas of problem solving that can be difficult for some children.
Speech Pathologist and Director