St. Olaf College | News

Researchers examine the importance of emotional development

Associate Professor of Psychology Grace Cho (right) and student researchers Joy Smith ’17 (center) and Anna Johnson ’16 review some of their findings on the way emotions are socialized and expressed in families with young children.

Think back to a moment in your childhood that is particularly tinged with emotion — the anxiety of getting on the bus by yourself for the first time, for example, or the fear of moving to a new town and the sadness of leaving your friends behind.

How did your parents help you? Did they provide comfort? Did they talk about the experience with you? Did they validate your feelings and help you to express them effectively? Or did they minimize the experience and leave you to figure things out on your own?

And who was there for you to help you with your emotions? Your mother? Father? Both?

St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Psychology Grace Cho and two students are spending the summer analyzing this particular part of family life in an attempt to provide more insight into children’s emotional development.

The project, part of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, examines the way emotions are socialized and expressed in families with young children.

The research team is analyzing parents’ beliefs about emotions and their interactions with children, particularly how elaborative parents are when talking to children about their emotional experiences. The team is also looking at the role of sociocultural factors (e.g., parent and child gender) in the patterns of emotion socialization.

“In the broad psychological literature, there is a lot of attention focused on children’s cognitive and literacy development. The way children become emotionally literate has often been neglected, but it is equally important,” Cho says.

Indeed, research finds that early emotional competencies are linked with greater well-being and positive outcomes later in life.

Cho notes that when developing good socioemotional skills and emotional maturity are sacrificed in pursuit of cognitive and academic excellence, there may be negative consequences. Some researchers have proposed that this trend, for example, may lead contemporary students to have higher levels of anxiety and depression.

The importance of emotional development
Cho says the preschool years are vital for emotional socialization, as this is the time when a child’s awareness of the complexities of emotions really burgeons. The socioemotional skills children learn during this period of time, including how they understand, regulate, and express their emotions, can help them to develop into emotionally competent and healthy beings.

Joy Smith ’17, one of the students working with Cho this summer, says this research is relevant to parents as much as to psychologists, since they are the primary influence on their children during their early years of growth.

L-R) Joy Smith ’17, Associate Professor of Psychology Grace Cho, and Anna Johnson ’16: “Children who understand and express emotions more easily have better empathetic and social skills, which can help to build relationships,” Johnson says. “They even do better academically.”

“Everyone expresses emotion, and emotion is a key part of our everyday lives and interactions with people. Studying how children and their parents communicate about emotion can give us better insight into how children learn and develop emotions,” she says. “How they talk about emotions with their child can have implications for their child’s emotional competence, social skills, and relationships.”

Anna Johnson ’16, the other student researcher, says the project has taught her a lot about the methodology involved in developmental psychology research, along with how vital it is for children to learn to express their emotions.

“Children who understand and express emotions more easily have better empathetic and social skills, which can help to build relationships. They even do better academically. Even before children enter school, they are taught which emotions are appropriate to express and how they should express them,” Johnson says. “If children aren’t able to understand and express emotions, it can affect a lot of different areas of their lives. They are likely to have lower-quality relationships and it can even contribute to disorders such as depression.”

Looking at it from different lenses
Cho earned her Ph.D. and M.A. in developmental psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She teaches courses in child and human development, diverse families, and research methods at St. Olaf.

Her research is located in the intersections of developmental and cultural psychology and family studies. She is concerned with better understanding and enhancing children’s socioemotional development and examines them within the contexts of the family and the broader culture. What is the role of parental beliefs and practices, and how do parents nurture and shape their children’s emotional selves?

Cho also considers how cultural values and norms influence parent-child interaction. Toward this end, she is collaborating with her counterparts at the Catholic University of Korea to examine whether Korean parents express emotions with their children similarly or differently than American parents.

Cho asserts that gender may also affect emotional socialization. There is an assumption in the larger culture that mothers — and women in general — are more emotional and have the ability to express their emotions more freely. This may affect the ways in which mothers and fathers talk about emotions with their daughters and sons.

There is also a cultural assumption that mothers may be more influential to children’s development than fathers, which has led fathers to be understudied historically in the field. However, Cho argues that fathers are as essential in the emotional development and upbringing of a child as mothers. She added that it is important for research studies to give equal attention to fathers and mothers since there are things that fathers may do differently than mothers.

The pathway to emotional competence
Cho hopes that her research will prompt a shift toward a more balanced and holistic approach to child development.

“We should not be only concerned with how quickly children are learning to read, or how well they solve math problems, but we should also be concerned about their emotional well-being too,” she says.

She hopes her research can bring serious consideration into the ways caregivers and educators can better nurture their children’s emotional skills, helping them to effectively manage and express their feelings as they grow. “Caregivers can help children in their path towards emotional competence by providing them with ample opportunities to discuss the variety of emotions they may experience in their everyday lives, by elaborating on the emotions and utilizing rich emotion language while doing so,” Cho says.

“Children benefit when they have developed adaptive strategies and appropriate vocabulary to express their emotions.”