Feelings are complicated, especially for children who don’t understand why you won’t let them have ice cream for dinner or when they’re asked to leave the playground early. It’s hard to teach kids about emotions because it’s a fairly abstract concept. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be sad, scared, or excited. It’s difficult for children to say what they are feeling because many times they don’t know what to name the feeling they are experiencing. Instead, they show us how they are feeling by throwing temper tantrums and having meltdowns. We first need to teach children the words to express their feelings before we require them to “use their words.”
Kids who understand their emotions are less likely to act out by using temper tantrums, aggression, and defiance to express themselves. Young children can be taught basic emotions such as happiness, anger, sadness, and fear as early as two years old. As they grow older, you can explain emotions such as feeling frustrated, nervous, shy, etc. to them.
Let’s look at 5 complex emotions that you can teach your children to help them express their feelings.
Anger may seem irrational but for a child that hasn’t yet learned how to regulate emotions, it’s an immediate natural reaction to some sort of wrongdoing the child feels. Help them identify the feeling by saying, “It looks like you’re really angry,” and mimic the facial expression of being mad. Then proceed to teach your child how they can express themselves when those feelings occur. Your child needs you to explain how they are feeling because they can’t communicate it themselves; this is called building your child’s emotional vocabulary.
Children and teens often don’t recognize their anxiety for what it is. Instead, they may think there is something “wrong” with them. Children may focus on the physical symptoms of anxiety like stomachaches. Providing accurate information about anxiety can reduce confusion or shame. Explain that anxiety is a common and normal experience, and it can be managed successfully. Encourage your child to open up about any fears and worries. Teach them about anxiety; that it’s normal, adaptive, and not dangerous but can be a problem if not treated. Finally, help them recognize their anxiety by helping them understand physical symptoms, anxious thoughts, and patterns of avoidance.
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Sadness can happen when your child feels scared, or when someone says or does something that feels bad. Sadness can be felt when they’re missing someone or through disappointment, like missing a playdate. Give your child a safe space to express their sadness. You may also normalize their feelings by sharing a story about how you experienced a similar loss when you were their age. Talk about what helped you with your sad feelings.
Feelings of fear usually stem from anxiety and worry. Since there are fears we can’t always protect our kids from, be sure to validate your child’s worries about the situation. You can express that you have similar feelings and ask your child if they want to ask you any questions about it. Since it’s more difficult for a young child to express the root of their fear, telling stories, acting out situations, or reading books about a particularly scary situation can help kids overcome fears.
Self-acceptance is not about vanity or narcissism. It is about teaching our kids to know themselves and to accept themselves as they are. To develop self-acceptance in your child, it is important to make them aware of their strengths and their weaknesses. Teaching them that they are not defined by what they do makes it easier for them to gain self-acceptance. Employ positive affirmations to improve their problem-solving and creativity skills under stress. Repeating realistic and specific affirmations leads to psychological wellbeing, and increase in confidence, self-compassion and pro-social behaviours.
Each day, ask your child, “How are you feeling today?” With young children, use a simple chart with smiley faces if that helps them to pick a feeling and then discuss that feeling together.
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