Understanding and communicating emotions is an important milestone for children.
Adults play a big role in teaching children how to use their words to explain their feelings. But teaching a child to express their emotions can feel like a daunting task. Here are some simple ways to help children better understand their emotions and communicate them to others.
Teach Emotional Vocabulary
Teaching children the words they need to communicate their feelings is so important. It’s just like learning a foreign language: you need someone to teach the vocabulary and explain what it means in order to be able to communicate in a new language. Emotional vocabulary is the same for young children. In this case, adults play the role of teacher.
Start putting words to feelings that you and your child experience. If you’re having fun playing together, say to your child “It makes me happy to play with you!” If your child spills their snack on the floor and is upset, you might say to them “I know that makes you angry or sad.” Using these words in context will help the child learn their meanings.
Once your child has mastered the meanings of basic words such as “happy,” “sad,” and “angry,” you can incorporate more complex emotions into your routine. There is a nuance to much of the emotional language we use, so exposing your child to these words early on will help them understand the difference.
For example, you might illustrate the difference between “worried” and “scared” by telling your child they are “worried” about something that is happening in the future. “Scared” better represents emotions that are happening at the moment, like the feeling we get after a loud clap of thunder.
Model Ways To Deal With Emotions
Everyone experiences difficult emotions. It’s important for adults to show children that they can become frustrated, sad, or even angry. But it’s also important that children see adults in their lives managing their emotions in healthy ways.
Think about how you want your child to deal with their emotions and model that same behavior. If a task becomes frustrating, you might walk away for a little while or take a deep breath before trying again. Talk about that with your child, explaining how you are feeling and what you’re doing about it.
It’s also totally appropriate to cry in front of your child. Studies show that when parents withhold negative emotions from their children, it can lower the quality of the relationship between the parent and child. It can also be emotionally taxing for the parent to pretend to be positive all the time, diminishing their ability to parent effectively.
Instead, if you feel the need to cry, explain to your child that everyone is sad sometimes. Tell them that crying is ok and that you’ll feel better after you cry for a little while. Afterward, follow up with your child and explain that you feel better after crying.
Narrate Your Child’s Feelings
One effective way to teach emotional vocabulary is to narrate your child’s feelings. Start this early, before the child is speaking on their own. It’s as simple as saying “I know you’re feeling sad/mad/happy.”
As children get older, continue to narrate what you’re seeing from their emotional responses. If they are giggling and telling jokes, you might say “You are so silly right now!” If they are upset because they didn’t get their way, you might say “I know it’s disappointing that I said no. You can feel angry about that.”
This narration is helpful because often when children are experiencing intense emotions, they aren’t able to express themselves through words. After hearing someone else narrate their feelings, they may learn the pattern and be able to express themselves in the future.
Use Children’s Media To Talk About Feelings
Don’t discount the power of Sesame Street. Experts have found the show is an effective tool in teaching children all kinds of emotional regulation skills. Episodes focus on executive function, self-control, emotional regulation, emotional vocabulary, and so much more.
Researchers have found the same to be true of another PBS show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Children who played an app based on the show were more likely to use emotional regulation techniques taught by the show. Families can feel good about using both Sesame Stree and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to support their child’s emotional growth.
In addition to television shows, children’s books are a great way to introduce emotional vocabulary to children. Read picture books that tell stories of characters dealing with difficult emotions and talk to your child about how the characters deal with those emotions. There are so many wonderful children’s books that talk about emotions, but here is a list of 50 titles to get you started.
How does your family encourage children to understand and communicate their feelings?
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