It may sound simple, but it’s not as easy as you think. Here’s our guide on how to talk to kids about their feelings, as well as coping strategies to handle big emotions.
I recently had a chat with a friend, and we randomly started singing Hi-5 songs – this song, specifically. As we were singing (off-key, mind you), it got me thinking about feelings and the littlies’ understanding of it. Do they even know what feelings are and how to express and work through them? After all, even adults have difficulty talking about their feelings… So how do you go about explaining this abstract topic to the kiddos?
Explaining feelings to kids and how to cope with them
In theory, talking about feelings seems simple enough. However, it can be quite tough to pull it off. Children may not be able to recognise, understand, or describe what they’re feeling. And because of that, they may express their feelings through other ways such as facial expressions and body language. They may even act out their feelings by using temper tantrums, defiance, and aggression!
Thus, it’s important to talk to kids about their feelings as early as possible so that they understand and know how to manage their emotions better. Talking about feelings is not something that will develop naturally, so kids need lots of practice to become comfortable with it.
6 effective ways to teach kids about feelings
1. Identify their feelings
Psst, did you know that children become fully aware of their emotions around the age of 10? Hence, emotional intelligence researchers recommend that children be taught about feelings as early as three years of age. Start by using basic words like happy, sad, angry, and scared to describe feelings. As the younglings get older, expand their vocabulary with more complex words such as overjoyed, exasperated, anxious, and dismayed.
There are many fun ways to teach the little ones how to identify their emotions. We love this very comprehensive list, which includes activities like using puppets and singing songs. Another great way is by discussing how characters in books and TV shows feel.
2. Talk about how they’re feeling
Talk to your kids about their feelings for short periods throughout the day. Ask specific feelings-oriented questions so that they’ll give fuller responses as opposed to surface-level answers (“I’m fine/okay” is the most common; I (and other adults) do it too!). Show kids how to use emotional language to express their emotions. I had a parent friend who often reminded their tot to “use your words” whenever they’re feeling something. This is good practice for the kids and, hopefully, it’ll grow into a natural habit for them.
Also, take the opportunity to use yourself as a model for sharing feelings. An example would be, “I’m sad because you didn’t want to share your toys with your siblings. I bet they feel sad too.” This helps them to understand feelings and makes it okay to talk about them. It’ll also teach them empathy, another important life skill.
3. Teach them how to manage their emotions
Even as children become more aware of feelings, they still struggle with big emotions. There may be times when your tykes will be throwing tantrums or hitting someone. Yikes! This is where you come in – by teaching the kids how to deal with uncomfortable feelings.
First off, explain to them why it’s not okay to hit anyone, even when you’re upset with that person. Instead, help them recognise their feelings and give them the tools they need to cope. Impart anger management skills so they’ll know how to resolve conflicts and channel their anger. Taking a self-timeout is a good way to help them calm down before they start acting up.
Teach the little ones how to deal with sad feelings too. Remember Sadness from the Pixar movie Inside Out, and how she was often cast aside compared to the emotions? Let kids know that it’s perfectly normal to feel sad, and share tips on how to deal with sad feelings. One way is to get them to pen down their feelings and then crumple the paper up after the feeling has passed.
4. Use praise as a form of encouragement
Give praise when your kids talk about their feelings or express them appropriately, and be specific about it. For example, “I like how you told your sibling that you were mad when they called you names.” This will show your younglings that not only are emotions normal and it’s okay to talk about them, it also reinforces the behaviour and makes them more likely to repeat it. It also lets them know that you’re observing them and are aware of when they do good things.
5. Be a good example to them
The little ones often observe their parents and people around them, and like sponges, they soak everything up – both good and bad. Oops. So do your best to regulate your own emotions in front of your children and show them how to handle big emotions. If they see you expressing and positively handling your feelings, they’ll learn to do the same over time. If you resort to raising your voice and throwing things because you are angry and/or upset, your kiddos will mimic this behaviour eventually. Monkey see monkey do!
6. Use teachable moments
Talking about feelings with your young ones is going to be another lifelong journey. So, it’s important to continually chat with them about emotions and handling them. Look and create teachable moments – trust us, there will be plenty as the bub grows up – on healthy ways to cope with both good and bad feelings. And, as an extension to point number one, the media is another good outlet for teachable moments.
What to do when the big emotions strike in your kid
So you have followed the above-mentioned ways of explaining feelings to the kiddos. Bravo! But what happens when they’re feeling the big feels? Parents, these tips are for you:
1. Be their emotional support
Don’t freak out! Kids are less likely to share if they believe it causes discomfort towards you. Resist the urge to make their bad feelings go away. Telling them “it’s going to be okay” is not always helpful! Instead, stay present and listen to your child as they pour out their feelings to you. Ask questions that can help give you a base to build your support. Provide an objective perspective only when they’re ready or if they’ve asked for it.
2. Make time for them
There may be times when you may not be emotionally available for your kids. That happens, parents… it’s normal. What you ought to do is tell them that you’re busy, state when you’ll be free, and stick to the promised timing. “I’m having a hard time right now. Please know that it’s not your fault. I’m going to take a break first, and then we’ll talk more.”
3. Don’t invalidate their feelings
No blaming, accusing them of lying, telling them they’re being sensitive or dramatic, or sweeping things under the rug… When feelings are minimised or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways. Remember to practise what you’ve been teaching them.
Empowering your kids about emotions lets them know it’s okay to feel a certain way and say how they feel. This will help them become mentally strong and nurture their coping skills to deal with feelings. It’ll also prepare them for difficult situations they’ll encounter in life. Parents, remember that you play an important role in your child’s emotional development too.
You’ve got this!
Top image: Joseph Frank via Unsplash