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Teaching Children to Identify Feelings
Children are close to their feelings at all times. They may not have the language or understanding to be able to express themselves appropriately or be able to identify what someone else’s experience is, but that doesn’t keep them from laughter and tears. Regardless of understanding children are really good at FEELING their feelings.
In fact children are so good at feeling their feelings they often are frustrated or overwhelmed by their experience and their inability to use language to share that experience with others.
You may have seen this in the form of tantrums, lashing out at peers (or adults) or perhaps you have seen your child become upset only to then get more and more distressed while trying to explain their upset.
Talking to kids about feelings is a good starting place for feeling identification. Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to use yourself as an example. If you find yourself smiling broadly because of an experience you are having with your child share with them your feelings of happiness. Ex: “I am smiling because I feel happy playing this game with you”. Or if you are sad and tearful you can share that with your child “I feel sad right now and so I am crying”.
Building on this type of exercise, you can practice feeling faces with your child. A fun way to do this is to name a feeling then ask your child to show you their face that matches that feeling. (“what does your happy face look like?”)You both practice your feeling face and take turns looking at that face in the mirror. Depending on the age and development of your child you may be able to expand on this by asking them a question about what makes them have that feeling. ie: “what is something that makes you feel happy”.
Social stories are a great way to explore feelings. There are many books available at the library that offer ways to investigate feelings and situations where feelings might arise. And making up stories about a specific situation can also be helpful. For example if you have a child who is afraid of the dark, you can make up a story about a little boy or girl who is afraid of the dark and what they do because of this and how they were able to comfort themselves (with a favorite toy, a nightlight, a special blanket) and eventually feel less frightened.
Offering children appropriate responses when they are having big feelings can also be helpful in deepening their awareness of managing emotions. Some options for moving through anger include, hitting pillows, pushing against something (like a pillow a parent is holding), a wall, or even pushing hands against a parents hands. Also squishing clay or playdough or throwing pillow or stuffed toys into a laundry basket or running can help a child to move some of their anger or frustration in a healthy way. Talking about these options and practicing them when the child is not angry helps these resources to be more accessible when the big feelings roll in.
Other examples include offering hugs when a child is sad, or giving them a favorite cuddly toy or blanket and encouraging them to hold it while they cry.
Taking these concepts one step further it is possible to use these same ideas in relationship to your child’s behavior with other children. (“When you hit Tommy, he looks sad and doesn’t want to play with you. You can use your words to ask for what you want instead”)
Feeling awareness and identification are a process and one that does not happen overnight. However, using some of these ideas and tools can help your child on their journey to being able to express themselves and decrease some of their frustration.
Emily Morrison is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Sonoma County California. She has a private practice in downtown Santa Rosa.