Understanding difficult emotions

Young children’s understanding of their emotions develops within an environment of relationships initially with their parents, then siblings and later with peers. The quality of this emotional understanding becomes increasingly important in how well children regulate both their emotional experience and their behaviours and are critical factors in the development of many child emotional and behavioural disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and anxiety disorders. Besides the distress these disorders cause to the children and their families the longer-term psychological outcomes for these children, when left untreated, are often very poor. For example, conduct and oppositional behaviour problems in childhood show strong links not only to adolescent and adult antisocial behaviour and substance misuse, but also to mood, anxiety and eating disorders

A program of Australian Research Council funded research led by Associate Professor Richard O’Kearney at ANU, in collaboration with Associate Professor Karen Salmon’s research group at Victoria University in New Zealand, is examining for the first time the interacting role of differences in children’s disposition to emotional reactivity and differences in the quality of the mother child conversations about emotions in the development and persistence of disruptive behaviours in young children.

Considering these factors simultaneously is an important advance on recent approaches and critical to refining knowledge of how the mother child relationship influences the development and expression of temperamental factors which regulate emotional and social behaviours. For example, although we know that pre-schoolers whose mothers use frequent references to emotions in conversations with their child and provide rich, descriptive language when discussing feelings are better able to understand the emotional perspective of others and act more pro-socially, little is known about the child related factors which impact on the child’s learning about their emotions in these interactions. Nor is much known about what quality or aspects of the communication is most beneficial for particular children.

In this research O’Kearney and his team use a combined observational and training design to examine whether the influence of particular styles of mother emotion talk on child’s emotional abilities may depend on the child’s emotionality. For highly emotionally reactive ODD children mother’s emotion talk which is rich, elaborative and developmentally appropriate may be most beneficial while for low reactive disruptive children mother’s emotion talk which promotes mutuality and connectedness may be more likely to enhance the child’s emotional abilities. This a key question in improving outcomes of parent centred treatments which are currently the most effective interventions available.

The research has great potential to increase knowledge about the influence of mother child talk about emotions in the development of emotional competencies in young oppositional children, led to better treatment and prevention outcomes for these children, and increase options for treatment and prevention of these highly prevalent and costly problems.