Talking to young children about feelings encourages social skills

The way mothers talk to their children when they are young has a lasting effect on children’s social skills, according to a research study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The way mothers talk to their children when they are young has a lasting effect on children’s social skills, according to a research study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. 
The researchers found that children whose mothers often talked to them about people’s feelings, beliefs, wants, and intentions, developed better social understanding than other children.
The study, based at the University of Sussex, followed children from the age of 3 to the age of 12, and measured their social understanding. One tasks involved watching clips from The Office to see if the children realised that David Brent kept misreading situations.
They also tested how mothers talked to their three year olds about a series of pictures. Those whose mothers described the mental state of the people in the pictures, for instance, how they felt or what they might be thinking – did best on social understanding tasks. This did not mean that they behaved well towards their mothers – in fact, children with the best developed social understanding were more likely to behave negatively to their mothers.
The researchers say that although its relationship to behaviour is complex, “social understanding is an essential skill for interacting with others both at work and at play”.
Researcher Dr Nicola Yuill says: “Using mental state talk is not hard. It does not require particularly good language skills or a sophisticated social understanding and it seems eminently teachable. It would be really interesting to work with people who run family learning programmes to explore whether teaching parents how to use mental state talk has a beneficial effect on their children’s social understanding.”
 



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