How can you get emotionally open?

Emotional development right from the start

Children need emotional competence - parents too! This could be the motto for the question of parental support for emotional development. Competent and sensitive parents can encourage their children to

  • To recognize feelings in oneself and in others,
  • Expressing and naming feelings appropriately,
  • develop effective strategies for dealing with emotions and
  • to react sensitively to the emotional experience of other people (cf. Saarni, 2002).

Parents teach their child right from the start how to evaluate certain emotion-triggering situations. They do this directly through their immediate reaction to an emotional event, e.g. through a clear expression of horror when their child falls. Or they show their child indirectly through the mood in the family which feelings are accepted and which are not. The parents' reactions to grief and anger of their child differ depending on their gender (gender-specific socialization): if girls learn that they are expected to be polite, indulgent and "good", angry-aggressive behavior in boys becomes rather tolerated (von Salisch, 2000). The opposite is true when dealing with grief: Boys, in particular, receive little support from their fathers and learn to suppress the emotional expression of grief (Fuchs & Thelen, 1988; Zeman & Garber, 1996; Zeman & Shipman, 1998).

Above all, an open approach to feelings is conducive to emotional experiences in the family and thus the emotional development of the child

  • a positive emotional family atmosphere,
  • sensitive parenting behavior, even when the child expresses negative feelings (e.g. anger, disappointment) and
  • frequent and open family discussions about emotions or emotional events, in which it is conveyed that the expression of emotions is accepted (cf. Wertfein, 2006).

While a positive mood, parental sensitivity and open family conversations support the children in having emotional experiences, a negative family climate, a low degree of openness in dealing with feelings and punitive or ignoring reactions by parents to children's emotional expressions (especially negative, i.e. unpleasant feelings, such as anger, sadness, fear, disappointment) inhibit child learning in emotional situations.

Emotional family atmosphere and dealing with negative emotions

Parents who regulate their negative emotions in stressful situations in such a way that they maintain a positive basic mood in the family are role models for their children in dealing with emotions. This positive emotional family climate is characterized by a high level of family cohesion, a low tendency to conflict and constructive strategies for conflict resolution. Through open discussions with the children, for example about relationship conflicts and their solutions, the emotional security and well-being of the children can be promoted (Cummings & Wilson, 1999). Often times, a positive family atmosphere is associated with sensitive and encouraging parenting behavior on the part of the parents.

In contrast to this, a negative family climate is mainly characterized by the increasing irritability of the parents, the avoidance of communication, a low level of family cohesion and a falling tolerance threshold for negative emotions (Bodenmann, 2002). The background is often partnership conflicts or other burdens on the parents (e.g. financial scarcity, illness), which can have a negative impact on the parent-child relationship through inconsistent or strongly controlling parenting behavior on the part of the parents (Cummings & Wilson, 1999; Cummings et al., 2002; Katz & Gottman, 1991). Parents' hostility in particular can impair the parent-child relationship and the emotional security of the child (Grych & Fincham, 1990), but it can also increase sibling rivalry (Stocker & Youngblade, 1999). The following figure makes it clear that external stress factors (“stressors”), the emotional family climate, family relationships and individual personality traits of parents and children can mutually and in many ways influence one another.

Figure 1: Importance of the family climate for family relationships (Wertfein, 2006, p. 82)

Parental sensitivity and emotional support

A sensitive behavior of the parents in dealing with the needs, especially the emotional expressions of the child, has a special impact on the relationship between parents and children right from the start. According to Mary Ainsworth (cf. Grossmann, 1977), parental sensitivity includes

  • the undistorted perception and correct interpretation of the child's utterances as well
  • a prompt and appropriate response to the child's signals.

This requires parental attention and empathy. The quality of the parent-child interaction as well as the handling of the child's feelings are decisive for the bond between parents and children. On the other hand, the parental sensitivity towards the child's signals shapes the child's willingness to communicate emotional needs. Studies on emotional development have shown that the quality of attachment to children is particularly related to the development of emotional vocabulary (cf. Klann-Delius, 2002). This makes sense when you consider that children who experience their parents as reliable are more likely to dare to tell their parents about emotionally difficult events. Accordingly, it can be shown that securely attached children are more socially competent and have more favorable strategies in dealing with stressful situations than insecure attached children (Zimmermann, 1999; 2000).

How should parents react when their child is unhappy, angry, or sad?

Competent parents carefully observe their child's mood in order to notice the first signs of sadness or tension. They show their child their unconditional appreciation ("I like you, even if you are angry") and listen to him in such a way that he feels understood (look at the world through the child's "glasses" and take part in his experience ). Parents' undivided attention is important in difficult moments; this can also mean just sitting quietly with the child when the child is (still) unable to speak.

If the parents have supported the child in perceiving his feelings and giving them space, you can help him in a further step to find a solution to his problem himself ("help to self-help"). Such parenting behavior (“emotion coaching”, cf. Gottman, Katz, Hooven, 1996; 1997) can strengthen the child's self-confidence and independence on the one hand, and the emotional bond between parents and children on the other. In addition, by dealing openly with emotions, parents can convey to their child that feelings of all kinds are useful and important (cf. Graf, 2005). What applies to emotional experience, however, does not have to apply to all child behavior: “All feelings are allowed, but not every behavior” is the rule here (cf. Graf, 2005). Here the parents are required to set clear rules and boundaries that give the child orientation in their behavior.

Family conversations about emotional experiences

Since linguistic and cognitive development are closely related, parents can promote their children's emotional competence primarily through open family discussions about past or present emotional experiences (e.g. Laible & Thompson, 2002). Talking about the causes or triggers of certain feelings prove to be particularly beneficial for the development of empathy, especially when current emotional events are linguistically linked to previous experiences of the child (Eisenberg, Losoya et al., 2001). By using emotional experience in language, universally applicable emotional knowledge is conveyed, which helps the children to foresee future situations and to react appropriately.

It can be observed that the content of such family conversations about emotional experiences depends on the personal learning history or attitude of the parents: this becomes clear in the example of young mothers from a working-class neighborhood with a high unemployment rate and frequent violent crimes, who convey to their daughters that clear expressions of anger and Confident, even aggressive, reactions are appropriate when treated unfairly or provoked (Miller & Sperry, 1997). So what has proven itself for the mothers is also conveyed to the daughters in dealing with emotions - almost everyone knows similar examples, especially in relation to often heard “remarks” such as “an Indian knows no pain” or “don't be a crybaby”. Such sentences and the resulting “meta-emotion” (Gottman, Katz, Hooven, 1996; 1997) often (also) unconsciously shape our later behavior as adults. In the role of parents, these hidden messages in the back of the mind can lead to unsuitable parenting behavior when dealing with emotional events.

What are the most common mistakes when dealing with child emotions?

  1. "Feelings get stronger when you deal with them" This fear that feelings could escalate and the wish that the child is well, contribute to the fact that parents make the child's problem small (“it will surely come back soon”) or distract the child from his or her feelings (“come , now eat something first, then the world will look completely different ... "). Some parents hope that if they simply don't pay any attention, the uncomfortable feelings will go away on their own.

  2. "Feelings such as anger, fear, and grief are signs of weakness and loss of control" Parents who have adopted this inner attitude in the course of their own learning history or are unsure how to deal with these feelings usually try to suppress any displeasure in themselves and in their child. They do this either through disregard or clear disapproval ("if you don't stop crying now, then ..."). The background to this behavior is often the fear of the parents that the child might show undesirable behavior that is difficult to control (e.g. a fit of anger and destructive behavior). In this case, the parents set an emotional limit, even though they actually want to set a behavioral limit.

If one looks at the parents' motives, the respective reactions are understandable. Nevertheless, playing down, ignoring, punishing and distracting behaviors on the part of parents are considered to be of little help or even hindrance to emotional development. Because the children learn from these reactions of their parents

  • that not all feelings are okay and should be expressed and
  • that they can avoid conflicts by closing themselves off to their parents when they have problems and by suppressing feelings.

This prevents important experiences of the children in emotional situations, which can ultimately also be expressed in other contexts through less competent or insecure child behavior. It can be observed that children who have to suppress anger in their families, for example, tend to behave socially insecure and shy when dealing with their peers. If, on the other hand, the child has a quick-tempered temperament that makes it difficult for the child to regulate his anger, these children express more aggressive behavior when dealing with their peers (Bohnert, Crnic & Lim, 2003). This is due to the fact that, due to the lack of positive experiences and due to their experiences with a rather negative family climate, these children have difficulty interpreting social situations correctly. They often assume hostile intentions of others and react aggressively to them (von Salisch, 2000).

Emotion coaching in everyday life

Competent parents who want to support their children in their emotional development are attentive listeners and observers. You use emotionally challenging situations to get closer to your child, to dive into his world for a few moments and to take his perspective. Sometimes there are playful opportunities to get to know the child's emotional world better, as the following scene shows (Gottman, 1997, p. 276f.):

Child: The bear is alone because his parents no longer want him.
Father: Did his parents just leave?
Child: Yes, they are gone.
Father: are you coming again?
Child: No. No more.
Father: Why are you gone?
Child: The bear was angry.
Father: What did he do?
Child: He was mad at Mama Bear.
Father: I think it's okay to get angry sometimes. She will definitely come back.
Child: yes. Here she comes.
Father (takes another bear and speaks in the voice of Mama Bear): I just took the rubbish down. Now I'm back again.
Child: Hello, mom.
Father: You were angry, but that's okay. Sometimes I get angry too.
Child: I already know.

The father succeeds in picking up the (projected) feelings of his child through attentive listening and understanding questions (no questioning!). By conveying that it is okay to be angry sometimes, he gives the child emotional support ("we stay with you, even when you are angry") and takes away his fear of loss. The scene described makes it clear that emotional events present valuable learning opportunities and can strengthen the trusting relationship between parents and children.


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Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Dr. Monika Wertfein is a qualified psychologist and research assistant at the State Institute for Early Childhood Education.


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Here you will find the first part of this series on “Emotional Development from the Beginning”: How do children learn to deal with emotions competently?

Here you will find the third part of this series on “Emotional Development from the Beginning”: How can educational professionals promote the competent handling of feelings?