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Understanding emotions and feelings

Photo: We can take for granted how much information is acquired through incidental learning

Children learn by experiencing. Feelings and emotions are just the body’s response to external stimuli. Feelings and emotions act as a guide, telling a person what they do, or don’t like, such as the physical feeling of a sharp pin prick, or the emotionally uplifting words of a close friend.

Although these words are used interchangeably to describe the same thing, there is a difference. Emotions are instinctive such as happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear and anger. Feelings react to emotions physically and neurologically. For example:

  • the emotion of anger will lead to the feeling of aggression
  • the emotion of happiness will lead to the feeling of optimism
  • the emotion of fear will lead to the feeling of anxiety.

Young children demonstrate their emotions and feelings by crying, laughing, whinging and any number of behaviours. As they grow up, they pick up words, signs and expressions to communicate their emotions and feelings. They receive feedback from family, friends and strangers that helps them learn new ways of regulating their behaviour.

Incidental learning and development

Incidental learning is defined as learning that is "unintentional and unmotivated and that occurs without any apparent reinforcement. Also called passive learning”.

Incidental learning happens through overhearing – when children hear speech that is not directed at them. Overhearing helps children build vocabulary and gives them grammar and general knowledge. An example of this would be overhearing a conversation about a new soap opera on TV. The listener passively learns i.e. unintentionally learns from this conversation and goes on to make use of it in their own life. In this instance, it would be to watch the soap opera then talk to others about it.

We can take for granted how much information is acquired this way, and how much incidental learning helps us get a broader view of the world and people around us. Deaf children can have limited access to incidental learning compared to their hearing peers. When they are around people they cannot always pick up very important social cues and information. They will often be socially less mature than their hearing peers and act out their feelings in tantrums and inappropriate behaviour, long after hearing children will have ‘grown out’ of that developmental stage.

It is important that parents are aware of this as early as possible and set an example becoming open communicators (sometimes having to explain tricky subject matters as deaf children may miss out on these important conversations - this will become especially important as a child grows into a teenager), start communicating about their own emotions and feelings, and ensure their child has a rich variety of social experiences with both deaf and hearing people.

To learn how you can use communication to encourage positive development in your child, read our guide Communicating with your Deaf Child.

Exploring feelings and emotions with your deaf child

Most deaf children are born into hearing families with no previous knowledge of what it means for a child to be deaf. Parents are unlikely to know about different communication methods so their deaf child will often be late developing a language and vocabulary.

It is important to work quickly to help your child catch up, and this is especially important when helping them to understand their feelings and emotions. Below are some tips on how you can achieve this: 

Acknowledging feelings

  • Accept your own emotions, even strong ones, and be mindful of how you physically feel when you have them. When your child experiences the same emotions, you will be better equipped to help them understand.
  • Remember it’s OK for your deaf child to show their emotions and feelings in a way that doesn’t hurt others. There are no ‘bad’ feelings even if, for example, your child is having a tantrum because they aren’t getting something they want. It is important to talk them through their emotions, understand their own and others feelings, and help them resolve their issues.
  • If your child is using a strategy at preschool or school, such as a calming method, use it at home too.
  • Explore different words and signs for emotions and feelings. The boarder vocabulary they have, the better able they’ll be at communicating their needs and consequently more secure in their own skin.

Naming emotions

You can help your child learn about their emotions by giving them words and signs to name their feelings. Start with some basic emotions:

  1. happy
  2. sad
  3. love
  4. hate
  5. angry
  6. afraid

With young children, you can make a six-sided ‘feelings cube’ out of card. Draw or cut out pictures to match each feeling, sign the feeling, explore when this feeling may happen and demonstrate the feeling with role play. The child can use the cube to let you know how they feel by pointing, or turning the cube with the appropriate face outward.

Then, build up to more complex feelings such as frustrated, embarrassed, surprised, nervous, grateful, jealous, guilty, excited, anxious, curious, upset, worried, confident, annoyed, pleased, disappointed, confused, interested etc.

Like with the cube, draw or cut pictures from magazines and catalogues and put them onto A4 card. Having them visible about the house encourages communication around feelings for all the family.

The feelings of others

It is also important to talk about the feelings of others and the consequences of your child’s actions and reactions. Ask your child what their reaction would be to a friend who is ‘happy’, ‘sad’ or ‘angry’. This can be explored further by giving each emotional situation a context. For example, ask them what they would feel if their friend is angry with something in general. They may say ‘worried’ or ‘interested’. But what if there friend was angry with them? They may say ‘guilty’ or ‘sad’.

Then go on to ask them how they think a person may react if they acted ‘happy’, ‘excited’, ‘aggressive’ etc.  Explore all their feelings, and be honest. It may be hard to talk about negative feelings but it is very important to acknowledge the entire spectrum of human emotions. It’s important for your child to be comfortable with having strong feelings, know how their feeling will affect others and know that they’re in control of them.  

Read our guide on Supporting Your Deaf Baby or Toddler’s Listening and Speech Development to find out more about incidental learning and how you can support your child’s development.