We are born with an innate capacity to feel. In fact, our emotions serve a survival function. A newborn baby lacks the ability to communicate verbally with her parents – she can’t tell you that she’s hungry, tired, or needs a change. What she can do, though, is express her discontentment with a sharp cry, which immediately mobilizes you to tend to her needs. She doesn’t produce this cry intentionally – it’s simply her body’s natural mechanism to protect her livelihood.
Thus, we are hardwired to experience and exhibit different emotions (including the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger) long before our brains are mature enough to really process and understand them. The frontal lobe, which is the brain’s emotional control hub, as well as the system that is responsible for logic, reasoning, judgment, and personality, doesn’t fully develop until age 25. This means that as children and teens mature and experience more complex emotions, their ability to comprehend and regulate those emotions is still catching up.
While kids are in the throes of learning to process their feelings, parents can help scaffold them towards healthy emotional expression. Read on for some tips on how to help children become masters of emotions:
Build Their Emotional Vocabulary.
In order to master emotions, children need to be able to name them. Having a label for what they are experiencing is comforting because it creates a sense of familiarity (“I know what this is, I’ve felt this way before”) and puts your child in control – he can draw on memories of when he’s felt that way in the past and how he’s handled it. Labeling also creates some distance from the feelings (think of the Snickers tagline: “You’re not you when you’re hungry”) – it helps your child separate his personality (which is more stable) from his emotions (which are constantly changing). Finally, feelings labels are validating – they help remind him that he is human, and that his feelings are totally normal.
A fun way to build emotion literacy is by playing feelings charades. Sit down with your child and make a list together of every single feelings word you both can think of. This is a great opportunity to assess how expansive his vocabulary is and help teach some new words (if he understands the word “surprised”, maybe he can learn more nuanced off-shoots of that emotion, such as “startled”, “confused”, “amazed”, or “excited”).
Once you’ve got a solid list, cut out each feeling word, throw them all in a hat, and take turns picking words and acting out the feelings for the other to guess! When it’s your turn to guess, comment on what you’re seeing your child do (“Hmm, you’re furrowing your brow, your mouth is turned down a little, and you’re holding your hands in fists – I think you’re angry!”). When it’s his turn, ask him how he knew what feeling you were acting out!
Following is a sample list of feelings words to help you get going:
Now that you have a good idea of what emotions she knows and can recognize, use those feelings words often in everyday conversation. Label what you’re feeling (“I’m feeling really happy playing this game with you”), label what she’s feeling (“I see that you’re crying. You look like you’re feeling sad that your friend couldn’t come over today.”), label what characters in books or TV shows are feeling (“Wow, Alexander feels really mad about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!”). This practice helps build her emotional awareness and teach her that it’s okay (in fact, it’s good!) to talk about feelings.
Coach Them to Use Feelings Language in the Moment.
We naturally feel emotions very physiologically, but it takes practice to articulate those feelings verbally. Now that you’ve been practicing learning and using emotional language, guide him to describe his own feelings. Some children start by verbalizing their feelings inappropriately, such as making comments such as, “I hate you,” when they’re mad with you. Rather than getting upset with your child for making this comment, try to read between the lines and help him learn to say what he really means – this can be as simple as responding, “You’re really mad at me.” By showing him that you understand, it will help build trust in your relationship and scaffold him towards being able to use more effective means of communicating his feelings.
Praise Emotional Expression.
Give your child positive feedback for any attempts she makes to communicate her emotions, even if she doesn’t do so in the most productive way. For example, if she is throwing a massive temper tantrum (think stomping feet, throwing toys, rolling around on the ground…), but at some point in the mayhem, she’s able to say, “I’m mad!”, jump on the opportunity to thank her for telling you how she feels. If she’s calm enough to hear you, you can add, “Now that I know that you’re feeling mad, we can work together to help you feel better.” This will show her that sharing her feelings, particularly when they feel out of her control, can beget the help she needs to learn how to manage them.
Model Emotional Expression and Control.
To help your child learn how to communicate his feelings using words, show him how. Talk about your own feelings in developmentally appropriate ways, and talk out what strategies you might use to help yourself feel better if you’re feeling bad. Be careful to maintain appropriate boundaries – I’m not suggesting you go and air all your dirty laundry to your child! But a lot of parents feel like they need to hold it together and not show their children when they’re distressed. The reality is that no matter how good an actor you are, your children know you well and can probably guess how you’re feeling, so you might as well own your emotions as an opportunity to build their emotion muscles. Children also have a tendency to feed off their parents’ emotions, so by sharing and working through your own feelings, you are simultaneously helping them work through theirs.
Let’s say there’s a sick relative in the family, and you’re worried about them. Your child probably feels the same way. It’s healthy to have an open conversation about this. You could say something like, “You might notice I’m a little down today. I’m feeling sad because grandma is sick, and I wish she were feeling better.” Now that you’ve put your feelings out there, you and your child can talk about what it’s like for each of you when you’re sad, and what helps each of you to feel better. You can even solicit your child’s help in engaging in an activity that would help you both feel more regulated (for example, “I think it would make me feel better if I sent her a letter with some pictures. Would you help me pick out which pictures to send?”).
Discussing feelings openly helps to demystify them and empower your children to feel in control of them. The more you can coach them to be “emotion masters”, the more effective everybody is likely to be in communicating with each other!