Building emotional health and compassion in young children

Published: Sunday, Feb. 13 2011 9:52 p.m. MST

Ross A. Thompson says a major factor in good emotional health in children is a strong relationship with the mother.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

A child's early emotional development has a large impact on overall health, morality and lifelong achievement, said Ross A. Thompson, professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis during the 7th annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture at Brigham Young University on Thursday night.

"We are moving to a place of new understanding of the importance of early childhood for life span, health and development," Thompson said. "We will never go back to the days in which we used to think that nothing much of importance happens in the early years that makes a difference for the rest of life."

Thompson spoke to students, faculty members and community members in the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall on the university's campus about his research on the emotional aspect of a child's development.

"We are discovering the powerful role of emotions in forging social attachments in early relationships, emergence of social understanding, the importance of emotions for creating foundations of psychological adjustment and even providing a basis for cognitive confidence and academic achievement," he said. "We are moving to a new day of understanding of how emotions are the constructive foundation for some of the really important achievements we care about in the early years, including morality, self understanding and compassion for others."

Thompson said that although the breakthroughs researchers have had with understanding the internal potential of children, they have also discovered some of the opposite affects of emotions.

"We are discovering that while emotions have the potential to contribute to the earliest psychological developments especially when children are growing up in supportive contexts, we also know that there is the potential for emotions to undermine children's healthy development, especially when faced with chronic adversity and threat," he said. "In a sense were are realizing there are two sides to children's emotional lives which is contributing now to our understanding of early childhood development."

Some findings include depression and psychological disorders in children as young as preschool. The good news, Thompson said, is that as emotional disorders are identified young parents have opportunities for strategies and prevention.

Drawing from his research, Thompson categorized his studies into two groups — the emotional and the emotionate child. Much of the categorizing had to do with research in how the children reacted. The emotional child had less control of his emotions, while the emotionate child learned to recognize and understand the way he is feeling.

"We are increasingly finding that when children do not have supportive relationships that don't help them with emotion management early express have long-term consequences," Thompson said.

According to Thompson's research, one of the major factors in good emotional health in children came from a strong relationship with their mother. From a young age, a child's emotion often mirrors the expression on their mother's face. As they get older, words are added and through their vocabulary and language they are able to categorize and express emotion.

Studies showed that as mothers recognized and identified emotions, linking them with situations they were in, their children were more able to understand their emotions and act accordingly. As children understand their emotions, they are more able to understand themselves, develop morally and have a greater social understanding.

"The emotional and emotionate character of young children depends significantly on stress and support in their environments of care, especially their experience in close relationships," Thompson said. "Emotions can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming to young children. This is why what is said and how it is said is so important."

It is through helping children understand that their feelings are valid, while still understanding that others feelings are as well, helps them to put feelings and desires in context, he said. Children are able to socially adapt as they are taught to recognize their emotions and put them in the proper context of getting along with others.

Thompson's main focus is on early parent-child relationships, the development of emotion and understanding and emotion regulation, early moral development and the growth of self-understanding in young children.

In attendance was President Cecil O. Samuelson, college president and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sharon; Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, Primary general president and her husband, Jack; Sister Cheryl Esplin, second counselor in the Primary general presidency, and her husband, Max.

The lecture, as part of the Marjoris Pay Hinckley Chair in Social Work and the Social Sciences at BYU, was established to help strengthen families, encourage the development of women , develop strategies relating to the challenges of parenting and to conduct research on helping children with disabilities and challenges.

In honor of Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley, two of the five children of Marjorie Pay and Gordon B. Hinckley were in attendance, as well as three siblings of Sister Hinckley and many of her grandchildren.

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