Even for adults, emotions can feel like the waves of an ocean – hugely powerful forces that come from outside of us and knock us silly or carry us up to the sky… forces that consume us.
Now if we feel that way, imagine how very young children experience emotions. They haven’t already had our years of life on earth – they don’t know that even after experiencing difficult emotions, things eventually tend to even out… we have strategies for dealing with our emotions and we can usually keep ourselves in some kind of balance. Kids don’t know that’s even possible because they haven’t experienced it yet. And when they’re very young, children don’t even have the words to describe their emotions.
So they act them out in some ways that are awesome – smiling, laughter, hugging – and in other ways that are less than awesome – tantrums, screaming, hitting. Children are most definitely capable of having emotions (many of the same ones that we adults have), but they don’t yet know how to identify and express them in appropriate ways. And it’s a total bummer, but life doesn’t give them an instruction manual.
So it’s our job is to teach them.
You may be thinking – how am I qualified to teach anyone about emotions?
Well, the thing is that you are your child’s best teacher. You do know about this stuff (as noted above, you’ve had more than a few years on earth). And it’s easier than you might think.
Number one. Language. You can help your child better understand their emotions by giving those emotions names. This also gives the child a much-needed tool – when you can name something, you can talk about it. And if you can talk about it, you might even be able to do something about it.
An emotion like sadness is much less of a full-throttle tsunami, less of an overwhelming force when a child has words – even very simple words – to describe it. So use some words – “I can see that you are feeling sad,” “Are you excited about going to the zoo?” “Can you use any of your words to tell me how you feel right now?” Even if your child is still pre-verbal, use these “feeling” words as much as you can – that’s how your child will learn them.
Number two. Find ways to identify and talk about emotions, even when they’re not the child’s emotions. So talk about emotions when you’re reading together – “What kind of face is that boy making? How do you think he feels?”… when you’re discussing the day – “Debbie seemed upset today when I picked you up at pre-school. Why do you think she was so upset?”… and you can also model and describe your own emotions for your child… “I was very worried that I wouldn’t get you to school on time today. That’s why I was so quiet in the car” and “Seeing you at the end of the day makes me so happy that I just have to hug you!”
Number three. Start to give your child some strategies around their emotions – “When I’m upset, I try to remember to take a deep breath. That helps to calm me down.” Remind the child that there are tools they can use: things like asking for help; finding an adult to help resolve a problem; moving away from a child who’s upsetting them.
You want to teach them that generally speaking, it’s better to “say it, don’t do it.” And of course, that’s a big part of the reason why vocabulary is so important – “It is never ok for you to hit me. But if you are feeling frustrated, it is always ok for you to tell me about it. Then we can try to help you feel better.”
And that brings us to number four. Try to consistently praise your child when they talk about their emotions (even if you don’t especially like the emotions they’re describing). Some emotions are hard and there might be times when you don’t want to hear about them from your child. But of course, that isn’t going to make them go away.
Praising your child for talking about their emotions will make them more likely to talk with you about their emotions again… instead of just acting them out. And helping your child start to understand and work with the waves of emotion that will always be a part of their lives is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
Explore tools for teaching social-emotional skills to your child with Teaching your Child to Identify and Express Emotions.