Development of Children’s Understanding of Connections between Thinking and Feeling

Flavell, J.H., Flavell, E.R. & Green, F.L. (2001), Development of Children’s Understanding of Connections between Thinking and Feeling, Psychological Science, 12 (5), 430-432.

The process of gaining control over thoughts and feelings requires discrimination between thinking and feeling before learning how the two interact to produce behaviour. This EI musing highlights a Stanford University research report, which discusses developmental considerations involved in supporting children to regulate their thoughts and emotions. It is noteworthy as it highlights a developmental learning curve in the understanding of how thoughts and feelings are connected.

The report presents the findings of two studies designed to assess understanding of thoughts and feelings in a group of five year olds, eight year olds and adults. Researchers refer to this type of knowledge as “intuitions” and investigate three intuitions in particular:

  • Feelings can be triggered by not only external events but by internal thoughts alone in the absence of any external stimuli
  • An ongoing feeling state will normally be accompanied by thoughts relevant to that feeling
  • People may be able to change their feelings to some extent by purely mental means

The results showed that five year old children were less likely to attribute a change in emotional state to a thought (e.g. remembering something sad) and more likely to attribute it to an external cause (e.g. physical injury). Similar results were presented for the second intuition where the five year old group were shown to be significantly less skilled than the eight year old group in recognising that a person experiencing a negative mood state may also be thinking negative thoughts (e.g. sad thoughts accompanying feeling sad).

Similarly, results pertaining to the third intuition showed that the five-year-old group tended not to realise that someone may be able to make themselves feel happier by thinking happier thoughts. While the eight-year- old group performed significantly better in both studies, the adult group out performed them in a similar way.

We know that as children develop, they begin to incorporate increasingly more cognitive strategies to cope with overwhelming emotions and these results provide support for a scaffolded learning approach to teaching emotion regulation strategies to children.
This learning curve is evident in a comparison of the Aristotle Foundations EI Development Program with the Building Blocks Development Program. Students completing the Foundations Development Program are typically in their first year(s) of schooling and here, they learn about the differences between thoughts and feelings as they gain awareness of their internal dialogue in thoughts and memories occurring alongside emotional experiences.

Students completing the Building Blocks Development Program are typically in their fourth or fifth year of schooling and here, begin to engage with the concept of self-talk and emotional states that are likely to accompany negative self-talk. This leads to an introduction to strategies used to counter negative thought patterns.