Children & Emotions

Children need to be educated about emotions. Some knowledge about emotions is gained from observing others and taking note of how they act and what they say, however this develops gradually and only provides a base-level understanding of emotions.

Having words to express emotions makes emotions seem less overwhelming and more manageable. It also creates a sense that emotions are not permanent, and that the world won’t continue to feel so awful. Expressing emotions in words reduces the need to act on emotions, or to express emotions in aggressive or confrontational behaviour. A major reason why children throw tantrums, hit out, or behave badly is because they don’t have other means of expressing themselves. When emotions are too strong, people are unable to think clearly, and therefore react to situations rather than choosing how they prefer to act.

To be able to express emotions in words, children need:

~ A vocabulary of feeling words, suitable to their level of development.
~ The chance to observe adults using these feeling words in appropriate contexts.
~ A simple format for using these words.
~ A climate that supports and encourages use of these words.
~ Opportunity to practice.
~ Strategies for calming down enough to think of applicable words.
~ Rewards for using words rather than actions when distressed, angry etc.

One of the difficulties for many parents is that they are not comfortable talking about feelings, and rarely state how they are feeling. It can feel forced or artificial to suddenly start talking about feelings. However, like any new habit, it gets easier with time and practice.

A simple format is
”I feel … when …”
or “When … I feel …”
or “I feel … because …”

This simple format allows feelings to be expressed without agonising over how to talk about difficult emotions. Most of the thought can then go into identifying the feeling accurately. Adults may prefer to vary the format to suit the situation, but while children are learning the concept, it might be best for them to use one format consistently. This format is useful for people of all ages, and improves communication in almost any situation, including between partners.

The feelings that children need to be able to label vary with the developmental stage and personality of the children. It is not uncommon for children only to be able to identify angry/mad, sad, and happy, however during any day they are likely to experience a much greater range of emotions.

A good starting set of feeling words (depending on the age of the child) might include annoyed, angry, sad, lonely, scared, happy, excited, disappointed, and frustrated.

Older children might benefit from having words that express varying degrees of emotion. For example, a child who is often angry might find it empowering to be taught to differentiate between annoyed/irritated, angry, furious, and irate.

Parent and child can have fun together working out words that express how they feel. The process of finding the word to fit the feeling can help children feel more in control and that they do have options about how they react; this by itself might help reduce the emotion.