Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience: Increasing parental emotional validation and children’s emotional awareness using My First Emotions

Dr John Lambie

Poor emotional awareness in children has been linked to poorer child mental health. ARU research is helping to teach parents, teachers and family workers to teach children how to recognise their emotions, via toys and books.

My First Emotions is toy set which includes a parenting guide, five emotion toys and five emotion books (anger, fear, love, happiness, and sadness), a cuddly rabbit (with a pouch to put the emotion toys in), a set of emotion cards and an activity book. Dr Lambie developed it with Skylark Learning based on his research on emotion validation.

Emotion validation is accurately and non-judgmentally referring to someone’s emotion or emotional perspective. For example, “I can see you are sad”, or “that must be really annoying”. Emotion invalidation is defined as negating, ignoring, or dismissing their emotion, for example saying “Don’t be sad” or “Cheer up! There’s nothing to worry about.”

Dr John Lambie

Dr John Lambie

John is an Associate Professor of Psychology. His research focuses on emotion and awareness with an emphasis on theory, clinical applications and parenting. He is interested in emotion validation and emotional wellbeing in children and adults.

Find out more about Dr John Lambie Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Dr Lambie developed an influential model of emotional awareness showing that being aware of one’s emotions is not straightforward - it requires a certain kind of focused attention and the learning of emotion categories.

He showed parenting is vitally important in teaching young children how to be aware of their emotions. This research led to the development of the toy set My First Emotions, which went on sale in 2016.

Dr Lambie was the first to use observational demonstration to show that parents’ use of emotion validation was the chief link to their child’s emotional awareness.

Mothers and their children (aged 4-7 years) were videotaped while playing a game. Mothers’ use of emotion validation and emotion invalidation were coded, and compared to their child’s ability to accurately name their emotions during the game (i.e. to display emotional awareness).

Mothers’ use of emotion validation was the strongest predictor of children’s emotional awareness, and child awareness was not affected by their verbal IQ or their ability to recognize facial expressions of other people’s emotions.

These results suggested that children’s accurate attention to their own emotion states was significantly shaped by their mother’s use of emotional validation/invalidation, over and above their IQ, or general level of emotional understanding. Children’s emotional awareness during the game was linked to a subsequent measure of their ability to regulate their emotions.

Only about one third of mothers’ interactions with their child’s negative emotions were observed to be validating. Many mothers wanted to “keep their children happy” and therefore were inadvertently trying to “get rid of” their child’s negative emotions, leading to invalidation.

Lambie saw a need for emotional validation training — and a message that “it’s OK for children to have negative emotions”. He devised a parental training program, finding in a randomized controlled pilot study that the training increased mothers’ emotional validation significantly.

Since, the submission to REF 2021 Somerset County Council has ordered 600 sets of My First Emotions to use in all their preschools.

An adult and a child standing and hugging each other

Summary of the impact

After using the My First Emotions set:

  • Parents nearly doubled their use of emotion validation and decreased their level of emotion invalidation
  • 85% of children increased their awareness of emotion, including talking more about emotions
  • 39% of children could regulate their emotions better, including calming down more easily
  • Teachers and family workers in Wisbech use My First Emotions and associated training in their daily work

Impact

Global usage

My First Emotions has a global reach. It has sold over 13,000 copies in 35 countries across five continents. Originally written in English, it has been translated into Russian, Spanish and Chinese, and sold more than 5,000 copies in Russia and 2,000 copies in China. Sales revenue generated is about £900,000.

Increases in parental emotional validation

Content analysis of feedback from Russian and UK parents after using My First Emotions showed that 95% of parents reported an increase in their use of emotional validation (including talking more to their child about emotions). Follow up data shows that changes have been maintained for up to two years.

In an intervention study in Wisbech, UK, 89% of parents reported increases in their use of emotion validation, saying things like:

“I feel I listen to my child more…and think more about how she might be feeling rather than dismiss those feelings. I now try not to use the phrases “don’t be silly” or “it doesn’t matter”. I feel my child calms down better now. I feel closer to my child.”
(UK mother of a 2-year-old girl)

Two small intervention studies in Wisbech and Cambridge using quantitative measures found an increase in levels of emotional validation in parents after training with My First Emotions, and a decrease in levels of emotional invalidation.

About more about increases in parental emotional validation.

Increases in children’s emotional awareness

Parents and service providers reported a positive impact on emotional awareness and/or emotion regulation in 96% of children. The specific areas of impact were:

  • An increase in children’s awareness of emotion, including talking more about emotions (85%)
  • An increase in children’s emotion regulation skills, including calming down more easily (39%)
  • These were overlapping groups, with a total of 29% reporting an increase in both awareness and regulation skills.

Here is an indicative quote:

“They do talk a lot more about emotions. My child will actually say ‘I am crying, I am upset’ … Before all they would do was scream.”
(UK mother of a 4-year-old girl)

An intervention in Wisbech found a statistically significant increase in 2-to-5-year-old children’s emotional awareness after using My First Emotions for four weeks.

A small-scale study on atypically developing children in Cambridge found a reported increase in emotional awareness in children with Down’s syndrome and autism after using My First Emotions.

Survey data following up the use of My First Emotions in four Cambridgeshire preschools confirmed that approximately 130 children benefitted in terms of increased emotion understanding and awareness over the eight months from February to October 2019.

These findings are important because increased parental validation leads to increased emotion awareness in children, and it is known from research literature that better emotion awareness in children is associated with their better mental health.

About more about the increase in children's emotional awareness.

Changes in professional practice of service providers in a UK region of local need

In consultation with Cambridge & Peterborough Children’s Services, Lambie identified Wisbech as an area to target parenting support relating to children’s emotions.

Together with a child clinical psychologist, Lambie provided training to family workers and preschool teachers in sessions across Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough, Wisbech, and Cambridge. Wisbech was identified as an area of local need as it is in the top 10% most deprived regions of England). There are many young parents struggling to cope on low incomes and low levels of social support.

My First Emotions has been used as a resource for family workers in Wisbech since October 2018, and in nine preschools in Cambridgeshire (mainly in the Wisbech region) since February 2019.

A content analysis of all feedback from service providers (teachers and family workers) found that 93% reported a positive impact on their professional practice. The areas of impact were:

  • An increase in teaching children about emotion (49%)
  • Helping children who are struggling with controlling emotions (34%)
  • Teaching parents how to validate (63%)
  • Increasing their own validation skills (31%)

These were overlapping categories as several respondents reported two or more of these aspects. Family workers reported in particular that the “validation plus boundaries” technique was a new skill they have now incorporated into their professional practice with their clients.

Follow-up data from four of the preschools confirmed that they use the resources on a daily basis and that they have become part of the routine of the school.

Follow-up data from Wisbech family services confirms that family workers continue to use aspects of the emotional validation programme when delivering “Raising Children and Incredible Years Parenting” programmes and that they continue to deliver parenting courses using My First Emotions. They have also shared learning gained from My First Emotions with partner agencies and health visitors.

About more about the changes in professional practice.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, target 4.2.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 4: Increasing parental emotional validation and children’s emotional awareness using My First Emotions

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