Emotions can be very big and scary things when you’re a child, and not just for younger children. The emotional upheaval of adolescence can seem overwhelming as well. Helping kids identify, understand, and take ownership of their emotions does them a life-long favor. But how can you do this?
While we may think that kids should be able to identify and communicate how they are feeling, the truth is they have to be taught. Here are some tips on how to help kids understand their emotions.
1. Give the Feelings Names
It’s amazing how often we adults forget that, for small children, emotions are nameless, scary things. We forget that they don’t always know what is happening to them in the middle of an emotional “moment!”
For toddlers and preschoolers, it helps to provide the words that go with the emotion. “Right now you are feeling angry,” you could say. This helps them understand what’s going on: “Anger – so that’s what that is!”
For older kids and teens, it might help to explain some of the changes they are going through and let them know that overwhelming emotions are normal for their age.
2. Feelings Are Not “Wrong”
Sometimes, in our efforts to correct undesirable behavior, parents correct their kids for feeling a certain way. But no one can really control the way he or she feels about something; what we can control is how we act.
Try validating your child’s feelings – “I understand you feel frustrated, and it’s okay to feel frustrated,” while also correcting behavior – “You can feel frustrated, but you can’t throw things.” Then you can offer an alternative. “When you feel frustrated, scream into this pillow,” or “Stomp your feet.” It’s important to provide an outlet and let your kids know what is acceptable behavior, not just what isn’t.
3. Talk about Your Own Feelings
Give your own feelings names, and do it verbally. You can say you feel angry or really excited or whatever emotion causes you to behave in a way that makes your kids take note. Hopefully, you can also model appropriate outlets for those feelings. If you drop the ball on this one, talk about it with your kids. Ask them how Mom/Dad could have handled the emotions better.
4. The Feelings of Others
As your child comes to understand the words that belong to the feelings and, for older kids, some of the reasons behind the big emotions, you can point out that a behavior of theirs makes another person feel a certain way. And your kids will know what that feels like and will likely want to stop whatever behavior makes the other person feel bad.
For instance, you could tell your child you understand she is angry, but she is causing her little brother to be very sad. Your daughter will understand what “sad” feels like, and probably won’t want to keep making her little brother feel that way. This will help your kids in relationships later, too – empathizing with the emotions of others is important to having effective interpersonal relationships.
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