Help children identify and express emotion

Use these simple and realistic techniques to help your child identify and express his or her emotions.

Parents can help teach their young children to communicate their feelings so that their emotional needs can be met. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Parents can help teach their young children to communicate their feelings so that their emotional needs can be met. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Emotions: we all have them. Young children do, too, and because they have not completely developed the skill to communicate them clearly by standard conventions, parents are often at odds on how to deal with behaviors that result from their young child’s strong emotions. There is hope. According to the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, parents can help by teaching their young children to communicate feelings more effectively so that their emotional needs can be met.

Start by teaching the child how to identify emotions in themselves and in others. One can do this by simply pointing out “Riding your bike makes you smile, I can see you are happy.” Another one may be something like, “Remember, how mom’s sweater shrunk in the dryer? Mom got mad. Do you remember how mom’s face looked? Can you make a face like mommy?”

These are also good opportunities to teach how to deal with emotions. For example, “Sometimes when mommy gets mad, mommy take’s several deep breaths.” It is important for parents to use feeling words. That way the child is learning a feeling vocabulary that in the future will help the parent know more precisely what their child is feeling. Try not to make it too complicated. Pictures are also useful.

A child can gather a better understanding of the feeling by practicing identifying feelings in book characters. For example, “See the face on the pig (“Three Little Pigs”) he looks scared of the wolf.” One can teach different ways to respond to situations. For example, “This morning you looked mad that you couldn’t find your favorite shoes. What could you have done? You could have asked mommy where your shoes were, or, you could have worn a different pair. What would you have done?”

It is important not to teach while the child is having a meltdown. Save the teaching opportunity for later.  It is important we praise the child when they do try to talk about their feelings. Everyday should offer plenty of opportunities to practice. The more we practice, the faster they’ll learn.

Finally, parents can further their child’s learning on emotions by playing games. For instance, a parent could say, “I am going to make a face, guess what I am feeling.” You can add other things that make you feel that way. A parent can also read books in which characters display different types of emotions. The parent can stop at the page in which the character displays some type of emotion and ask “What do you think he is feeling?” The parent can continue with “What makes you feel that way?” or “What should he do?” Don’t be surprised if your child repeats the same emotions you are teaching. That is okay; they are just learning to identify feeling words.

Parents also need to remember not to discuss adult circumstances.  It is also important to validate the child’s emotions and not punish the child for expressing their feelings.  Parents can also teach, “It is not okay to hurt others when we are feeling _________.”  

In time, parents will find it rewarding in having developed a closeness, in which their child can really communicate how they are feeling.

For more articles on child development and parenting, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Did you find this article useful?