Imagine you’re staring your biggest, scariest nightmare right in the face. You know you feel like crying, you might even get angry, and you definitely don’t want to feel it. Your body reacts with chills, sweats, and tremors. You’re terrified, but you don’t know that word. You don’t know any words, actually, that describe what you’re feeling. It’s just a big, ugly, awful physical reaction to something terrible that you want to go away. As adults, we can identify that emotion as fear. But for children without emotional language, it often goes unnamed, unidentified, and unmanageable.
Feelings are BIG! As adults, our lives are filled with a lack of words, a misunderstood reaction, and the ever-worrisome confrontation. For kids, those feelings are BIGGER, SCARIER, and just as UNKNOWN. Being able to talk with your children about their emotions not only provides them with appropriate coping skills, but also the ability to become responsible communicators throughout their lives.
So how do we do it? The good news and the bad news is the same: it starts with YOU. Recognizing emotion, be it positive or negative, is something that helps us understand our reactions to experiences in our lives. Your children’s early emotional development has much to do with you and what you model. Let them see you being emotional, be it positive or negative. Tell them when you’re afraid. Tell them when you’re feeling frustrated. But also, make sure they see you showing joy and excitement. So, what does this mean? You’ve got to know what you feel, too!
1. Recognize your own emotional language. What’s your comfort level with showing/communicating joy? fear? disappointment? How about sadness and anger? Often, the latter get tied up together, with anger dominating sadness. It’s easier for us to be angry when we’re sad or fearful, rather then deal with the heaviness of sadness. When we show our sadness/disappointment through anger, so will our children. They will mirror what you do, so pay attention to what you’re showing before trying to have a conversation about how to communicate emotion.
2. Take time to explain emotion. Emotion is a healthy, natural, often powerful experience that we all have for different reasons. Some things make us feel good (e.g., making good grades or helping out a friend), while other things make us feel uneasy (e.g., seeing someone misbehave or not following the rules). We can all experience emotion in healthy but different ways. This goes for your children as well. Just because they don’t show fear the way you do, doesn’t mean their experience is wrong or unhealthy. Explain that differences in reactions make us unique. That being said, expressing our emotions—via talking, dancing, writing, or crying, for example—is a great way for us to understand our own feelings and help others understand us.
3. Create an emotion chart so your children can start off with simple recognition of emotion. “This face looks happy. See? This face looks frustrated.” You can find out quite a bit about your child and their emotional intelligence just by how they recognize emotion in others. You can act out emotions. “Show me what anger looks like.” “Make your face look content.” (Honestly, this is great for adults, too!) As you find the early recognition is there, continue introducing new feelings or emotions. This can begin as early as two years old and continue to develop as your child matures. Older preschoolers (four- to five-year-olds) can even make their own chart and use it when they experience a lack of words. “Point to the feeling you identify with right now. Now, point to the feeling you’d prefer to be feeling. How can we get there?” This can be a very helpful exercise in identifying emotion and working their way through it.
Also, create a list of words of potential emotions. Doing this activity together can help both you and your child think about all the emotions we might feel, even in a single day: ignored, friendly, excited, nervous, shy, safe, etc. Write them all down and then, perhaps around the dinner table, allow each person at the table to share the top three emotions of your day. Make this a family routine so that it becomes natural to think of your day in terms of emotions.
4. Have a plan. “When you’re feeling ___, what’s the healthiest way for you to show it?” This can be a verbal or written response. Make it fit for your child. If you know your child isn’t comfortable with expressing disappointment, help your child by offering him/her words. “I would bet you must be feeling upset that we had to cancel our plans today. I can tell you’re upset because you got very quiet and didn’t make much eye contact with your sister or me. You also seemed to be angry with me because you started raising your voice when I asked you to pick up your shoes. It seems like anger to me, is that correct?” You can also explain that we get angry sometimes when we feel disappointment. Then, explain disappointment and how it’s related.
5. Know that positive emotions must be explained, too. We forget that emotional development doesn’t just come naturally to us. The feelings might, but the language doesn’t. We teach our kids their colors, numbers, and letters, but we often leave out the most important tools to healthy living. Explaining our happiness is so important to our ability to feel happiness. Knowing what makes us joyful is part of being a responsible human being. Often we take for granted that when children are happy, they will show it. This can be the case, but not always. Emotion is emotion, and regardless of whether the emotion experienced is positive or negative, it helps to explain it.
6. Be patient. Emotional development is a lifelong process. Helping your children recognize their feelings empowers their future. It makes them better friends, better partners, and better parents. Plus, it helps them feel healthy and in control of their lives, starting at a young age. Emotionally healthy kids have the potential to become emotionally healthy adults. But, just as emotion can be an overwhelming concept for us, it’s newer and bigger for kids. Give them time to figure out what makes them tick. Give them space to feel, then decide if it’s healthy or not. And lastly and most importantly, remind them that you are a safe place and a person who can be trusted with all of their emotions, no matter what.
Resources for younger children
- My Great Big Feelings: A Story for Sensitive Children by C.M. Tolentino
- In My Heart: A Book of Feelings (Growing Hearts) by Jo Wiatek
- Listening to My Body: A guide to helping kids understand the connection between their sensations (what the heck are those?) and feelings so they can get better at figuring out what they need by Gabi Garcia
- The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
- The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
- Feelings Flashcards by Todd Parr—great for emotional charting)
- Inside Out (Pixar movie)—great for post-movie conversation
Resources for older children/teens
- The Feelings Book (Revised) by Dr. Linda Madison—also available with a journal
- The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers by Gary Chapman—also available: Parent Study Guide
- Inside Out (Pixar movie) with post-movie conversation
- Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life by Sheri Van Dijk
Resources for parents
- Talking About Feelings: A book to assist adults in helping children to unpack, understand, and manage their feelings and emotions by Jayneen Sanders
- The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers: The Secret to Loving Teens Effectively by Gary Chapman
- Thoughts & Feelings Speaking Cards: Card Game for Developing Your Children’s Emotional Intelligence and Social Skills