Our kids aren’t born knowing about their emotions, they learn about them as they grow. Emotions are taught, just like counting, reading and writing. Although the feelings occur automatically in response to different situations it’s up to parents and other caregivers to help children make sense of their internal world. When we teach them how to recognise and appropriately respond to their feeling’s children feel less overwhelmed, more confident and better able to regulate their distress.
So how can we “teach” our kids about feelings?
It’s important to understand that every feeling has a purpose. Every emotion tells us something important, and this knowledge can help us to navigate our world and keep ourselves safe (physically and emotionally). When we understand where our emotions are coming from, we feel less fearful and overwhelmed by the emotion and can also then apply appropriate strategies to soothe ourselves or address what brought up the emotion originally.
So, the first, and most important lesson we can teach children is identifying the feeling they are having and seeing if we can help them understand why. The complexity of your explanation will depend on the age of the child. The strategy is to notice a child’s response to a situation and then name the emotion you see. It sounds so simple, but its so impactful. When children understand why they feel so yukky it can instantly reduce their distress because they understand where it is coming from and why. When you name their emotion you also create a sense of connection and increase the positive relationship between you and the child because you are showing how closely you are paying attention, and just how much you care about them.
For infants identifying the emotion might be as simple as “good” or “bad” feelings “I know, you feel so bad right now”. For toddlers and older children, use key emotion names; sad, angry, happy, scared, disgusted, surprised. You could say something like “You are so sad right now because you didn’t get to play with that toy”. For older children you might get a little more complex with describing emotions, which occur along a continuum of intensity, for example angry could be adapted to frustrated or enraged, depending on how intensely the child has responded to a situation.
Some other handy hints to help children really understand their emotions could be;
- Printing pictures of different facial expressions that are labelled with the matching emotion and create posters to hang around the room.
- Sit in front of them and pull exaggerated emotional faces and get them to guess which feeling you are having. For older kids expand on this activity by getting them to guess why you might be feeling that way? (you can make up imaginative answers)
- Watch a tv show together and for younger kids you can comment on the emotions you see, and narrate why the tv characters might be feeling that way. For older kids ask them to identify the emotions they see.
Once we have supported our children to identify their feelings accurately, not only will they be less distressed, but they will be better able to communicate their needs and we can better support them to calm, or self-regulate when they are upset.
Rachel Tomlinson from Toward Wellbeing is a Registered Psychologist and Parenting Expert. She has experience working in education settings with children and families as well as in play therapy and general counselling, She has guest lectured at university, presented at national mental health conferences and also has a parenting book out at the end of January (Teaching Kids to be Kind – being internationally published).