Do you struggle with how to help your kids through difficult emotions? Here’s what you can do to help children identify and express emotions in healthy ways!
If you can’t manage your emotions, it will be hard for you to navigate all of the difficult situations in life.
Unfortunately, no one is born with emotional intelligence, or an ability to understand and handle challenging emotions.
This is why it is so important for you, as a parent, to help your kids understand their own emotions and the emotions of others and have concrete ways to handle them in an appropriate manner.
Kids who understand emotions, can label them, and know how to deal with them in a healthy way will have the skills to cope with all of the difficult situations in their life.
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Why you need to help children learn about emotions
As a parent, you need to help your children learn about emotions, because
- Little children are not born with the ability to distinguish or name feelings.
- They can’t describe what they don’t know.
- Kids lack self-control and need to be taught how to manage their feelings.
Brain development is complex and studies show that the brain is not fully developed until about age 25, particularly the prefrontal cortex which helps you make plans and get a handle on impulsive behavior.
If this is the case, then there is a lot of work to do in order to help your kids understand and manage their emotions before they become adults (and even after they become “official” adults at 18!).
Hey, I’m a “grown-up” and am still working on managing my emotions, especially anger!
How you can help children identify and express emotions
1. Talk about your own feelings and describe them
Your kids watch everything you do. It helps if you model appropriate behavior and take time to talk through your feelings.
Talking about your emotions helps your kids see that:
- Emotions are a normal part of life.
- There are many different kinds of emotions.
- How we handle them is important.
I often try to talk about my emotions with my kids.
- I am so excited that we can go to the beach today!
- I feel frustrated when you leave your toys on the floor in the kitchen. It makes it hard for me to cook.
- I feel angry with you! I need to take some deep breaths to calm down first.
- When you say mean things to me, I feel sad.
Talking out loud about your feelings helps your kids make connections between your behavior and the related emotion, and they learn how to appropriately express their own feelings.
Be forewarned, this will take a lot of repeated practice and patience!
2. Teach them how to label their own emotions
When you see your kids experiencing a strong emotion, help them learn how to express it.
- You are really bouncy! Are you excited that we are going to the park today?
- You look and sound sad. Did your sister hurt your feelings?
- Are you frustrated that we didn’t have time to play that game before dinner?
3. Teach them how to handle emotions in an appropriate way
I often talk with my girls (ages 3 and 5) about appropriate expressions of emotions.
- It’s ok to feel angry, but not ok to hit your sister!
- I know you feel sad, but screaming is not ok.
- It’s ok to feel frustrated, let’s stop and take a deep breath.
One of best things that I have learned for helping kids (even my little ones!) handle hard emotions is through the use of calm down tools.
Even my 3-year-old practices these with me. Our favorite is deep breathing and the 5-4-3-2-1 method of calming down.
Start teaching them by talking about your own behavior:
I’m sorry that I yelled at you this morning. I was feeling frustrated because I was trying to get breakfast ready and had to answer the phone and you were very noisy. Next time, I need to take a deep breath and calmly ask you to please go outside for a few minutes.
When I feel scared or anxious, I like to take deep breaths and think of a favorite time – like when we went to the zoo and saw all of the animals. This helps me feel better.
Then, help your kids come up with ideas of what they can do.
The other day, my 5-year-old was feeling sad because she wanted to go see daddy.
I emphasized with her (I know you feel sad when you want to see daddy and you can’t) and then I asked her “What can you do when you are feeling sad?”
She named a few ideas (talk to mom, play a game, get a hug, read a book) and I affirmed her choices. Then, she went to play a favorite game.
This small instance is helping to teach her what she can do when she feels sad.
We often practice the 5-4-3-2-1 method of calming down together. Since we’ve practiced many times, I have noticed that sometimes she will start the deep breathing prep on her own without my prompting.
This is a signal to me that she is starting to learn to self-regulate her emotions and calm down.
There are a lot of ways to be creative and brainstorm different ideas. Your kids will probably surprise you by coming up with ideas of their own.
The important thing is to talk about your feelings openly and honestly, model appropriate and healthy ways of dealing with them, and then helping your kids come up with ideas of how they can express those emotions appropriately.
Don’t underestimate young kids either!
My 3 and 5-year-old surprise me all the time with how they copy my behavior (good and bad!) and sometimes choose to have an appropriate, healthy response to a difficult emotion (it’s a work in progress!).
4. Model, model, model
As with all things parenting, continue to model appropriate behaviors and responses.
If you blow up at your kids often, then they will learn that as an appropriate response for anger and frustration.
If you binge eat when you are sad, they will notice that too.
If your own emotions are rising, then you need to take a step back and calm down before addressing a situation.
Remember, your kids feelings (and your own!) are valid, it’s what we do with them that is especially important!
5. Connect with your kids
Above all, stay connected to your kids.
Having a deep, loving connection with your kids, and acknowledging their feelings is very helpful.
They need to see your calm presence during their difficult emotions. When you are a safe, calm refuge, this gives them stability and courage to handle their own difficult feelings.
Don’t criticize or belittle your kids when they make an inappropriate reaction to a hard emotion. Instead, talk about the appropriate response.
Keep talking about it and they will learn how to make that choice on their own.
Most especially, notice when they have a good, healthy response and praise them for it!
I noticed that you seemed frustrated that your sister had your toy. Thank you for asking her kindly for it!
My 5-year-old will sometimes choose to take deep breaths when frustrated. I make sure to tell her that is a great choice!
For further reading, check out this book by relationship expert, John Gottman:
Big feelings in little kids can be frustrating for you, as a parent, but you can help children identify and express emotions in a healthy way. Talking about feelings and modeling appropriate behavior will help your kids develop emotional intelligence and set them up for future success! Have you tried this with your kids? What has worked for you?
5 Ways to Help Children Identify and Express Emotions
- Talk about your own feelings and describe them
- Teach them how to label their own emotions
- Teach them how to handle emotions in an appropriate way
- Be an emotional role model
- Connect with your kids