Parents can start helping their kids to become emotionally "fluent" at a very early age. I recommend that parents keep a "running commentary" going, when observing social and emotional situations with their children. Start as young as 9 or 10 months, to get in the habit, and to convey the message that feelings are important in our family. For instance, today, my 3-year-old was having trouble sharing with his 3-year-old neighbor. As the boys struggled, our neighbor began to cry. "See," I said, "Your friend is sad and mad that you won't share the toy motorcycle. Let's see what happens if he has a turn." After several false starts, I was able to encourage turn-taking between the boys. After they had some success for a few minutes, I praised them, reminding about how hard it was to accomplish. "See, now? You boys tried hard to share, and now you're having such fun together. Great work!" It's situations just like these that build a child's capacity to understand and respond appropriately to emotions of all kinds. Bit by bit, interaction by interaction, children grow their emotional skills; skills that are essential to successful negotiation of the world as adults.
It's this foundation that I HOPE will serve our children well when they become teenagers, and need to figure out all sorts of wild and wacky social and emotional situations -- without our help. When they're little, we provide the "emotional training wheels". We have to practice with them enough so that they're ready to ride on their own -- one day soon.
There's some interesting research that backs this up. I just read a review article summarizing some research about the importance of mothers and their use of "running commentary" on emotional situations, and the later emotional adjustment of their children. Of course, I assume the effect is just as powerful for fathers.
If you're interested, check out the article here.
In the meantime, happy emoting!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink