Every child should be taught the basic elements of emotional literacy. Like any other process of learning, this requires practice, repetition, and skill building. This is a slow and gradual process much like learning how to play the piano. A flexible but well planned curriculum is an essential part of good teaching.

A) Affective processing: A child should learn through his/her parents and teachers what each affect is him/herself and others. They should learn how to notice, read, communicate, and try to understand it. Different affects include joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust. There are more complex affects that are combination of these five primary affects. For example, a child may experience both anger and sadness when he/she loses a favorite toy or blanket. Disgust and anger can present together when a child is offered broccoli pizza. All the aforementioned feelings (joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust) can be experienced separately or in combination. Three or four of them together can form a complex emotional state.

B) Behavioral connection: A child should learn through his/her parents and teachers the connection of a feeling he/she experiences with a relevant behavior or accident. For example, if a child is angry and sad because of a time-out, the child should later be reminded that those feelings happen when he gets punished for not doing an age-appropriate behavior or failing to do a chore or brush their teeth. He could feel angry if things are not his way, or he may feel sad for not having his parent’s attention. The behavioral connection to an affective process should be taught in the context of a curriculum on a frequent basis and not in the midst of time- out crisis. The connection might be obvious to parents but needs to be taught and verbalized. This is because children’s minds have their own ways of understanding an event. For example, a child might interpret a time-out as his/her parents do not love him/her and they want to get rid of them. The child might totally forget that this is all about them not brushing their teeth.

C) Cognitive link: This is a higher level of literacy. This is the understanding that behaviors will cause emotional states which in turn lead to affective states. The loss of a favorite blanket by a 4-year-old will induce experience of loss of a near and dear object which leads to the emotional state of shock and grief. It will bring feelings of sadness for the loss and anger at the blanket for leaving him behind. Parents and teachers should help kids understand these connections. One might think this is way above a child’s head but I believe they are very capable of understanding, communicating and utilizing these concepts. As mentioned before, it is like learning how to play the piano. If one keeps practicing, it is absolutely fascinating how children could reach their brain’s potential.

D) Dynamic nature: The most advanced level of emotional literacy happens when a child will learn and understand that our emotional and behavioral experiences happen in the context of relationship with others. We all live in an emotional units called families and we are emotionally reactive to each other. Sibling sequence, parents age and availability and many other factors determine who we are and what we experience. Let’s go back to the broccoli pizza and see the role of dynamic factors in our emotional experiences. If a child feels angry and sad about eating broccoli pizza, it may not all be about the pizza. The child might fear that his/her parents’ expectations will not be met if he/she doesn’t eat the pizza. He/she may feel guilty that he/she does not like the pizza. This could lead to the child feeling as if his/her parents don’t understand him/her and that he is left alone with something he/she doesn’t like.
Advanced dynamic concepts that should be discussed and taught to children include understanding feelings of trust, loneliness, being unconditionally loved and cared for. These concepts can be practiced with children in many simple daily interactions.

For additional information, contact McLean Counseling Center in McLean, VA.