Baby Talk: Using Emotion-Based Language With Your Baby Will Help Them Develop Strong Social Skill Later In Life

little girl on phone
Talking to your baby about her emotions helps her build strong social skills. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Baby talk is a great way to bond with your newborn, but recent research has shown just how important this behavior is in shaping your child’s future social skills as well. According to the study, mothers who used more emotion-based words when speaking to their babies had children who grew up with a better understanding of other people’s feelings.

For the study, which is currently published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, researchers from the University of York in England observed 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16, and 20 months old. The researchers observed the specific language mothers used when speaking to their infants and noted each time a mother made a “mind-related” comment to her baby. According to a press release, mind-related comments were considered to be any inferences about the child’s thought process through their behavior. For example, if the child was having problems opening a door on a toy car, the mother might have used the word “frustrated.”

The researchers revisited 15 of the originally 50 mother-child pairs once the babies grew to age 5 or 6. They then used a psychology tool known as “strange stories” to determine the children’s Theory of Mind (T-M), or their ability to infer the thought processes of others. These strange stories are essentially fun tales deliberately constructed to measure children’s ability to understand the following real-life social behaviors: contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretending, joking, forgetting, misunderstanding, double-bluffing, figure of speech, appearance-versus-reality, and sarcasm.

Theory of mind is a fundamental social skill in which an individual can understand the mental states of others and then use it to predict how another person will behave. For example, theory of mind would be used to predict how a friend might behave after you’ve told them a joke that made them upset. Most people develop this skill by the time they are 5. However, researchers have noted that those with conditions on the autism spectrum, such as Asperger's syndrome, may never develop this social skill. Because of this, children with autism are often perceived as lacking empathy.

The study results revealed that children whose mothers made more mind-related comments when they were 10,12, and 20 months old scored higher on the strange stories task. Based on this, fthe researchers concluded that mothers’ verbal interactions with their babies had a strong influence on their children’s future ability to understand the thoughts of other people, and the motivation behind their behavior.

"These findings show how a mother's ability to tune-in to her baby's thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathize with the mental lives of other people," said Dr. Elizabeth Kirk, lead author on the study, in a statement.

Theory of Mind plays a fundamental role in our social interactions and is involved in nearly every interaction we have with those around us. Our ability to understand and relate to others is the building block of friendships and social interactions, and those who ignore the feelings and emotional motivation of others usually have difficulty forming these relationships. Findings of a study released earlier this year are consistent with the current study results, as they found that the most popular children often have higher emotional intelligence, again measured by their Theory of Mind skills. Even certain animals with advanced social behaviors, such as chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins have displayed this ability.

A better understanding of how children begin to develop this important skill can give doctors the tools necessary to better help those who are not developing it at the same rate as their peers. "These results are significant as they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy," Kirk added.

Source: Kirk E, Pine K, Wheatley L, Howlett N, Schulz J, Fletcher BC. A longitudinal investigation of the relationship between maternal mind-mindedness and theory of mind. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2015.

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