Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Communication and Emotional Vocabulay; Relevance for Mental Health Among School-Age Youths”, by Rimehaug, T. y Karstad, S. B. (2022), in which authors carry out a study to know whether it is important for children’s and teenagers’ mental health to have a rich and quality emotional vocabulary. 

Through the different posts of this blog we have seen how nonverbal language is immensely important for communication to exist, and a correct understanding of it contributes to effective and satisfactory interactions.

But what about verbal behavior? How does it affect our relationships, our way of developing individually or collectively? How does it affect our mental health?

There is a widespread assumption that language is important to mental health in several ways: both because of the influence of language on human development, and because of the influence of mental health on our communication.

In other words, good language development is normally expected to be a protective factor against mental health problems since it contributes to, for example, having good social functioning or the ability to solve cognitive problems more easily.

However, language and communication can also increase the ability to ruminate, misunderstandings, social conflicts…

Unraveling which aspects of language and communication are the most important is something that is still in progress. But the aspects that are proposed as such, may be its variety and richness, as well as its complexity; the understanding of emotional concepts and expressions, or the understanding of social mechanisms and processes.

In spite of this, it has been shown that vocabulary, specifically emotional vocabulary, acts as a resource to contribute to the proper development of social function, by improving prosocial behavior, reducing the risk of victimization and rejection, etc.

Furthermore, emotional language can express emotions and inform us about the emotional reactions of others in social interaction; also listening carefully to our emotional speech, which can influence our emotions.

Therefore, both positive and negative mental health could be related to language and communication, and possibly more to emotional communication. Therefore, it is possible that a rich and nuanced emotional vocabulary could be beneficial for mental health, serving for emotional regulation and social support, although there is also the possibility of using language in ways that create or exaggerate mental health problems.

It has been shown that those who receive mental health interventions (psychotherapy) are able to change and improve their mental health through emotional understanding and communication skills, more than those who don’t receive psychotherapy. 

In psychotherapy, this is often referred to as “the talk cure.” In fact, language has played a very important role in psychotherapy from its beginnings until the recent advances in cognitive-behavioral therapy. This happens because psychotherapy often focuses on finding words and narratives that can express and clarify life experiences, even shape or reinterpret them.

In these processes, poor emotional language can be an obstacle, and for this reason it is something that develops as the sessions progress.

In the current study, authors focused specifically on the associations between positive and negative mental health (understanding the former as prosocial behaviors, and the latter as emotional or behavioral problems) and emotional vocabulary.

There are relatively few studies investigating the specific role of emotional vocabulary in mental health. Authors hypothesized that emotional vocabulary might be more important for mental health than general vocabulary, thus, they could be a specific resource beyond intelligence and communication skills.

The study used a free labeling task, in which a series of words and phrases were used to describe facial expressions commonly associated with emotions. 410 students between 10 and 16 years old participated, accompanied by their parents.

The results indicated that emotional vocabulary in youth between 10-16 years is not a general resource for mental health, and the same would apply to vocabulary in general.

However, pragmatic language, skills to communicate effectively, were negatively associated with behavior problems and hyperactivity, while the same was not true for emotional and social problems.

Pragmatic skills were also positively associated with prosocial behavior, indicating that they are a resource factor for positive aspects of mental health.

In short, emotional vocabulary did not show a stronger association with mental health than general vocabulary, but pragmatic skills, in part, did.

The suggestion is that expanding emotional vocabulary per se is unlikely to improve mental health unless vocabulary expansion is integrated with improvements in social communication.

If you want to know more about nonverbal behavior and how it influences our personal relationships, visit our Nonverbal Communication Certificate, a 100% online program certificated by the Heritage University (Washington) with special discounts for readers of the Nonverbal Communication Blog.


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