Imagine yourself having a feeling—anger, for example. You know you feel something strong, like a volcano ready to erupt, but you can’t express it. You don’t have the words to describe what you’re feeling. Maybe you’ll start acting it out—stomping your feet, breaking things, hitting—which may not be very appropriate if anger happens to be the emotion. And when people still don’t get why you’re acting so loony, you might develop yet another feeling—frustration.
Children have the same emotions adults do. Adult emotions are the same as emotions for kids. They just don’t have the vocabulary—the repertoire available to them—to be able to convey what they’re feeling.
When they come into this world, children—for all intents and purposes—are blank canvases. It is up to you, the parent, to teach them how to express themselves in the healthiest way possible. The skills you teach them will go a long way in helping them develop their ability to communicate suitably as they grow into adults. That’s why teaching your kids about emotions and feelings is so important.
Now, just because a child cannot articulate what they feel inside doesn’t mean they’re not feeling frustrated, angry, disappointed, etc. All those feelings are in there, ready to come out when they’re triggered. Children just need to understand what they are and to learn the words that best describe them. That’s where you come in.
By the age of two, children can really start to soak things up. Don’t ever think it is too early to begin instructing them how to react with words rather than behavior, especially negative behavior. You can start by teaching your kids basic emotions, such as happy, sad, mad, and scared.
According to the article Teaching Your Child About Emotions, “by four to six years old, most children can recognize and understand the basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, and afraid. More complex emotions (such as pride, guilt, and shame) are built on basic emotions. A child should have a good understanding of the basic emotions before she is introduced to more complex emotions.”((ConnectAbility: Teaching Your Child About Emotions))
Teaching opportunities are always present. For example, when you’re putting Little Lily to bed and she starts to cry the minute you head for the door, you might want to say something like, “It looks like you’re feeling scared because I’m leaving you alone.” Then, you can sit with her and talk about what she’s feeling—the fear she might be experiencing. At this point, you can also reassure her that everything is fine and that you’re just in the next room if she needs you.
As your child gets older, you can progress into teaching them about more complex emotions, such as disappointment, frustration, and nervousness, among many others.
I remember in an old I Love Lucy episode, Little Ricky was going to be playing the drums in a show. Lucy was anxious and expressed her nervousness. Little Ricky heard her say it and then started asking what “nervous” was. You can imagine that after Lucy and Ricky finished explaining it, Little Ricky no longer wanted to play the drums because he was “nervous.”
Of course, right before a performance is probably not the best time to teach your little one about being nervous, but you get the idea. Use as many teaching moments as you can.
Here are some examples of ways in which you can begin teaching your kids about emotions and feelings:
1. Name the Feelings
Whenever you see your kid acting out emotions, that’s the time to start educating them. Suppose you’re at the park. Little Beaver is having a grand ‘ole time, but you have a dentist appointment and need to leave. You tell Little Beaver and he crosses his arms and starts stomping his feet. You can practically see the smoke coming out of his ears.
A good way to start teaching him about his emotions is to name the feeling by saying, “You’re feeling angry that you have to leave the park, but we have a dentist appointment now. We’ll come back another day.” You put a name to the feeling, and he now has access to a word for his behavior.
Or suppose that Little Beaver is going to get picked up for a sleepover. He’s smiling, looking out the window every few minutes, and asking what time it is. This is a good time to name his feelings. “Wow, you’re excited about seeing your friend, aren’t you?”
Human beings are constantly feeling, children included. It’s not going to be very difficult to have coaching moments show up throughout the day. Use them to your advantage.
2. Use Characters From Their Favorite TV Shows or Movies.
There’s an excellent PBS show, PBS KIDS Talk About Feelings and Emotions, that has adults asking children about feelings, what they think they are, and how to manage them. It’s a marvelous show to watch with your little ones—it’s a way to discuss what they’re personally feeling and ways to express it.
Another movie, which I think is one of the best, both for children and adults, is Inside Out. In this film, all the emotions have a character. Each one acts out their feelings. Essentially, the movie speaks about the necessity to know your feelings and to be able to express them in the best way.
By the way, one of the many, many things I loved about Inside Out is that it teaches its audience that it’s okay to experience all types of feelings. There is no right or wrong when it comes to feelings—only how they are expressed is important.
3. Read Books That Have Characters Dealing With Emotions
One of my favorite books is Love You Forever by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Sheila McGraw. This book is so good, I’ve read it several times myself. It’s a heartfelt story that you can read to your children to teach about different emotions—frustration, anger, love, sadness, etc.
As you read the book, you can ask your child, “What do you think his mommy is feeling right now after her son made a mess in the kitchen?” Or, “What do you think the man is feeling seeing his mom old and frail?” This is a great opportunity to talk about the different stages of life and the feelings we may experience throughout and teach your kids about emotions and feelings.
4. Teach Songs That Talk About Feelings
You probably know this one already—maybe even sang it yourself as a child or to your child, but there’s a great song called If You’re Happy and You Know It! This is a delightful song to teach your children about happiness. It’s a catchy tune that goes something like this:
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…stomp your feet…shout hurray,” etc. It’s a fun, active way to teach the emotion of happiness to kids.
Another great song to teach about being happy, sad, angry, etc. is Feelings and Emotions Song for Kids. It’s a very cute little tune that helps children understand the different feelings and what behavior is typically associated with it.
5. Talk About How Other People Feel
We have Family Night once a week at our house. My granddaughter is 9, and she loves to talk. We usually go around the table sharing the highlights of our day. When it’s her turn, she’s Ms. Chatty Kathy. But when it’s the next person’s turn, she usually tunes out, starts sliding down on her chair, or gets up to leave. The focus is no longer on her, so she’s not interested.
I’ve used this time to teach my kid about other people’s emotions and feelings. For instance, I’ll say, “Sophia, you had your turn and everyone listened attentively. How do you think your brother feels when he’s trying to share his day and you get up and leave the table?” Then, she’ll say something like, “Sad?” And I’ll respond, “Yes, that’s right, he feels sad that you don’t want to listen to him.” She usually gets the point.
Even at nine, she still needs to be taught that other people have feelings too and that it’s important for her to respect them. This is also a good time to teach empathy.
6. Make It a Habit to Label Your Own Feelings
My father passed away recently. Obviously, I felt very sad and depressed. My granddaughter lives next door and has been part of the entire process, from the moment my dad fell to four weeks later when he died.
After the initial fall, I told her, “I’m scared that Abuelo may not make it.” Or, “I went to the hospital to visit Abuelo and got very sad at seeing him so helpless.” Even after his death, I expressed yet another feeling—relief. “I’m so relieved that he died at home and happy that he’s no longer suffering.”
This was a very hard blow for me and everyone in the family. Fortunately, we all got an excellent chance to express our feelings at the memorial. And as 9-year-old Sophia listened earnestly, she was able to formulate her own feelings, “Abuelo was a nice man. He always fixed things for me. I’m sad I didn’t get to know him better.” It was very beautiful to hear.
7. Explain Other People’s Emotions
Children are ego-centric. They believe the world revolves around them. Egocentric thinking is the “normal tendency for a young child to see everything that happens as it relates to him- or herself. This is not selfishness. Young children are unable to understand different points of view.”((Michigan Medicine: Egocentric and Magical Thinking))
For instance, if your young child happens to be jumping up and down and coincidentally an earthquake hits, they will more than likely think they caused the earthquake. Their young age prevents them from knowing any differently. Similarly, when parents divorce, the child automatically believes that it is their fault—that they must have done something wrong to cause the breakup.
Because they believe they’re the center of the universe, it’s difficult for kids to comprehend that other people have emotions and feelings too. And if they do, they might believe they caused them.
Use adequate occasions to explain how other people feel, and also explain they’re not always responsible for the feeling of others. For instance, in the case of an imminent divorce, you may want to say, “Your father and I are getting a divorce, but it has nothing to do with you. We both love you very much. We understand it’s very sad for you. For us too!”
8. Use Pictures or Emojis
Another great way to teach your children about feelings and emotions is via pictures and emojis. I recall that on one of my visits to the hospital to see my dad, I noticed different little emoji faces on a board from which a patient could choose to express their pain level. That can be done with children.
When they’re feeling something that you recognize, you can show them emojis and ask, “Which feeling are you having now? Can you choose one of these?” You may first want to go over each one explaining what they mean.
There’s also a video you may want to watch with your children, Educational video – Feelings and Emotions With Emojis. Not only will it help you teach them about this important topic, but it’ll also give you some good bonding time.
Another great perk that results from teaching emotions to kids, especially anger and frustration, is that they will be more unlikely to act out. For instance, by encouraging them to use words to express their anger, they won’t lash out by hitting. At least they’ll have the words available to them.
9. Monkey See, Monkey Do!
Your children are watching you all the time. They’re practically like a surveillance camera. They pay very close attention. So, if your child sees you throw your phone across the room after a heated conversation, it’s duly noted.
Always be aware of your feelings and how you are expressing them. Are you using words or inappropriate behavior? If you’re driving down the 405 and someone cuts you off, do you flip him off? Lots of people do that. If you have a child in the car, remember, they’re paying attention. You’re modeling what to do when you become angry. Instead of flipping someone off, which does absolutely no good, say, “It makes me angry when I get cut off. It scares me because it may cause an accident.”
By teaching your kids about their feelings and emotions and what words to use to describe them, it opens up a whole new world for them. It’s like Helen Keller when she finally understood the meaning of words.
In the movie The Miracle Worker, there’s an amazing scene where she learns that water has a name—that everything had a name. After that, there was no stopping her—her world completely opened up. That scene still gives me chills to this day.
When you take the time and make the effort to explain what feelings and emotions are, you’re investing in your child’s well-being jar. If you can teach your children what feelings are, how they impact others, not to mention themselves, you are creating mentally strong children that will grow into mentally strong adults. And as parents, that’s what we all aspire!
More About Handling Kids’ Emotions
- Ways To Help Your Child Express Their Feelings
- How to Get Your Kids to Stop Whining All the Time
- 15 Questions To Ask Your Kids To Help Them Have Good Mindsets