Helping children learn about emotions

Mad, sad, happy, glad – we all experience a wide range of emotions every day. Learn more about how to help children with their emotions.

Talk to your children about feeling words.
Talk to your children about feeling words.

It’s not uncommon to hear parents say, “I just want my kids to be happy!” Many families invest a lot of time, effort and energy in keeping their kids happy. Running forgotten items up to school to prevent consequences, completing homework to avoid a reduced grade, buying wanted toys and items, allowing unlimited screen time and so on. While it can be easier to keep your kids happy than to deal with unhappy children, the reality is we don’t want our kids to just be happy. We want our children to experience a wide range of emotions in an appropriate fashion. Life comes with a lot of ups and downs. Children will be excited, sad, mad, scared, hurt, angry, etc. Michigan State University Extension offers the following tips to helping children learn about emotions.

Teach feeling words

From very early on, talk to your children about feeling words. When they’re pre-verbal, tell them what you see happening, “Your blocks fell over! You’re mad!” As they mature, include them in the dialogue, “I see your face is getting red. It looks like you’re getting angry. What’s going on?” There are many commercially available toys and games to teach feelings. One free resource is the Center for Social and Emotional Foundation on Early Learning, who offers a variety of free printable emotion charts, an emotion wheel and other great tools.

Model appropriate emotional expression

Talk to kids about how you’re feeling. They don’t need to know all the details, but it’s good for children to understand adults have feelings too and to see how you manage them. “I’m feeling very frustrated that we have a flat tire and will be late.” “I’m angry that the dog got into the trash and made a big mess.” In addition to modeling the words, you’re also modeling what you do with those feelings. “I am so mad at the dog right now, I’m going to put her outside and take some deep breaths to calm down before I clean it up.”

Remember kids are copy cats

Children see and hear how you and other adults handle their emotions. Have they heard you rant and rave about that car in front of you that won’t go when the light turns green? Or observed you hit the dog when she made a mess? Perhaps you concealed your emotions when your friend died because you didn’t want them to be stressed out too? But what does that teach a child about how we manage grief?

We teach children how to manage their emotions through what they see and hear. Be intentional and thoughtful in modeling what you want to see in your children when they are mad, sad or frustrated. When they observe something that perhaps you wish they hadn’t, be honest, “You saw me get very mad and yell at the car in front of us. I was not being patient. Sometimes it’s really hard to wait, and I’m worried we will be late. I should’ve just taken a deep breath and waited for my turn to go.”

Teach and model empathy

Talk about how other people might be feeling in your books and television shows. “Those other kids were not being nice to him, I wonder how he feels about that?” Notice when your child is empathetic and encourage empathetic responses. When a child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts another child, have them get the ice pack and bandage for their sibling or friend. Model empathy by helping others in need and explaining to children what you’re doing, “We are taking a meal over to the Johnson’s house because Mrs. Johnson just had a baby and could use a hand.”

Use books to teach emotions

There are many high quality children’s books that can be used to teach emotions. MSU Extension recommends the following books and offers family book sheets for them as well to extend the learning experience with your child:

High quality children’s literature allows children to explore a wide variety of emotions and talk about the things in their life that make them feel that way too.

Let your children experience emotions

Sometimes parents are tempted to shield their children from experiencing tough emotions. Many parents have swapped out one dead goldfish for another to not have to deal with the sad child who lost their fish. However, when children are able to experience authentic emotions in the moment from an early age, it helps them have a context for expressing and processing emotions as they mature. Someday, a child will lose their grandparent or another loved one, and having learned about sadness and death from their fish is a stepping stone in learning about grief.

Avoid telling your child how they should feel in a situation

“You shouldn’t be mad about this! We had fun today!Instead, validate how they’re feeling and explain what is next, “You’re mad it’s time to go! I had fun playing too. Now it’s time for dinner.” Children’s emotions are very personal to them, and what they’re experiencing is very real to them. As parents, we can provide the context and parameters of what is happening and safe expression of those feelings, “I know you’re mad it’s time to go. You cannot hit when you’re mad. Hitting hurts.”

According to “Linking Social Development and Behavior to School Readiness” by Barbara J. Smith, University of Colorado-Denver and Health Sciences Center, social and emotional skills have been identified as one of the strongest predicators of children’s academic success. Children who can identify and manage their own strong emotions and correctly interpret the emotions of others around them are able to perform better in school. The reverse is also true; when children have trouble managing their emotions, they often display challenging behavior in the classroom that interrupts their learning and friendships. Alongside the ABC’s and 123’s, parents can help their children be more ready for school success by teaching these critical social and emotional skills.

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the MSU Extension website.

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