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Helping Children Identify and Express Feelings

Children experience many of the same emotions that impact adults, but as they get older, they are in a continuous process of learning how to understand and properly manage them. Identifying which emotion they are experiencing is the first step, and only then can they begin to express them in a healthy way. Through these efforts, a child’s emotional intelligence can truly blossom. (It’s also important to note that an adult’s reaction to a child’s expression of the emotions they’re feeling impacts how their emotional intelligence develops. Validating  (rather than dismissing) a child’s feelings while they’re growing is crucial.) 

The Eight Primary Emotions

While many emotions exist, there are 8 main categories of emotions that are universally agreed-upon: anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame. However, that does not mean the complexity of emotions should be dismissed. When children can’t comprehend why they’re feeling a certain way and don’t yet have a means of processing it, the result is often an emotional outburst. These moments constitute the learning curve that’s a very normal part of better understanding emotions. 

How to Help

  • Give a name to the feeling. By giving a name to what a child is feeling, i.e. “Your favorite toy broke, and you are sad about it”, you help them construct a vocabulary of words that allow them to start making connections between what they’re experiencing emotionally and ways to talk about it openly.  
  • Discuss an appropriate expression of said feeling. Setting a good example for children is always a wise idea. By talking about your own feelings and expressing them in a healthy manner, you show your child that they can create a solution to their problem. For example, you could say, “I had a hard time lacing up my shoes this morning and it made me frustrated, so I decided to take three deep breaths, walk away from my shoes, and then tried again 5 minutes later.” 
  • Form an open dialogue wherein your child can actively process their feelings. Ask questions, offer a warm hug, and be an active listener when your child is experiencing an emotion that they may be having trouble articulating. By gently asking them questions, you help them to better understand what they’re going through. You could say something like, “When you hurt your thumb the other day, how did it make you feel?”, or “I can tell you’re having a hard time coloring that picture how you want and it’s making you frustrated. How can I help?” 
  • Offer praise. Rather than enforcing punishment when your child is grappling with their feelings, gently guide them and seek to offer praise when they express their feelings well. This helps children recognize that it’s both normal and healthy to talk about their feelings, and more importantly, that they won’t be harshly disciplined for doing so. 
  • Pay attention to cues. Be sure that you’re always tuned into your child’s body language, distinct behaviors, their words, and other actions. Identify patterns in the ways they’re communicating, which of course, may look slightly different based on the child. If you are better able to help your child identify their feelings by paying attention to these things and why they’re feeling them, they’ll be better equipped at expressing and managing their emotions. 

Getting to the Root Cause 

Helping a child get to the root of what they’re feeling helps all parties involved: parents, children, and those around them. Fostering a safe environment for children to discover how they experience emotions, helping them create appropriate responses to their emotions, and validating them all the while will help your child feel secure in expressing their feelings.