Skip directly to content

See our guest post at the New America Foundation: Equality and Justice for All Families.


The Power of Emotional and Social Competencies

by Catherine Myers

Communication between people is dependent on the expression of emotion. For decades, developmental psychologist Susanne Denham has been researching emotional competence and its role in social functioning. Emotional competence develops through the lifespan and as Denham and her colleagues explain, it includes:

  • the expression of emotion
  • experience with various emotions
  • understanding one’s own emotions
  • understanding other’s emotions
  • the ability to regulate emotions

Denham’s research team adds that a person’s emotional competence “contributes to their concurrent social competence and well-being, as well as to later outcomes.”1

Mothers provide a scaffolding for children’s development of emotional and social competence. When mothers are able to notice and identify their own as well as their child’s emotions, and to think about which emotions might underlie certain behaviors, they are said to have “maternal reflectivity” which is also measurable along a scale from low to high. Mothers with high “maternal reflectivity” talk more with their children about the child’s own emotions and about the emotions of others. This begins when the infant is quite young. For example, anticipating what the infant might be experiencing, a mother might say “Oh, are you sad because you're hungry?” or “Isn't that a silly cat?” Researchers call this “mind-minded” talk.2 This talk helps children understand other people’s intentions and predict others’ actions—researchers call this understanding “theory of mind.” Four-year old children’s theory of mind understanding is predicted by their mothers’ mind-minded talk at six months of age.3

At the age of three, children with high levels of aggression show less theory of mind understanding and less ability to regulate their emotions; parents’ use of corporal punishment was associated with higher levels of child aggression, and low levels of maternal emotional support of the child was associated with lower measures of the child’s understanding of theory of mind.4 Children’s theory of mind understanding predicts moral development.5

Mothers’ and fathers’ emotions and behavior are associated with preschoolers’ externalizing behavior problems, and effects can continue into middle school, depending on continuity or change in parents’ behavior, including expression of anger.6 Parents have direct and indirect effects across a range of young children’s emotional and social competencies.7; Researchers have built a substantial body of evidence showing the importance of emotional and social competences, as well as the foundational influence of parents.8

Emotions are not just a personal issue. A person’s emotional development has effects on how well they function in social situations. “Social information processing” is the term for how well people can understand what spoken and unspoken messages other people send. Both emotion and cognition are integrally related in social information processing.

Every family has an emotional system; the way individuals in the family interact with each other is a powerful force on all members of the family. These family emotional systems are transmitted as patterns of behavior from one generation to another.9 There is also an intergenerational transmission of parenting behaviors.10 Researchers have been able to show an association between family system functioning and children’s resilience.11 A person seeking to change his/her behavior can benefit greatly by gaining insight into “family systems” in a reflective, non-blaming way.

Dale M. Stack and a team of researchers examined the research literature on emotional development, parenting behaviors, and children’s functioning; they observe: “…research has only begun to understand the power of emotional (in)competence, its mechanisms, and far-reaching impact over time and across generations.12