Social experience plays a part in the development of emotional understanding. In fact, preschoolers whose parents explicitly teach them about diverse emotions and frequently acknowledge their children’s emotional reactions calmly and with care are better able to judge the emotions of others later in life.

Studies show that discussions within the family over disagreements are particularly helpful. For example, two-and-a-half-year-old children whose mothers explained and verbally expressed feelings, negotiated, and compromised during conflicts with them reached the age of three with advanced emotional understanding. The three-year-olds had learned the strategies modeled to resolve disagreements. It seems that these experiences and conversations modeled communication skills.

As preschoolers learn about emotions from their social interactions with the adults in their lives, they use their newly acquired knowledge in other contexts. This means that they engage in more emotional talk with siblings and friends, particularly as they play. As children engage in play, they frequently act out feelings, which provides a wonderful way for early learning about emotions.

Sibling disputes are a rich resource for learning emotions. When parents intervene in sibling disputes with a sense of reasoning and negotiation, preschoolers learn to be sensitive to their siblings’ feelings. As they begin to understand their siblings’ emotional perspective (for example, “You feel mad when I won’t share”), they tend to engage in less fighting.

This knowledge about emotions helps children in their interactions with others. It is easier for children to get along when they have an understanding of another perspective. The more preschoolers refer to feelings when they interact with playmates, the more well-liked they are by their peers. Children seem to “get it.” They learn that the more they recognize and acknowledge the emotions of the other person while explaining their own emotions, the better the relationship.

Teach your child empathy.

More to consider:

Help a two-year-old develop emotional language by prompting emotional thoughts such as “What makes my friend (or brother) afraid?”

For older preschoolers, explanations are more important. For example, “He’s sad because his mom is out of town.”