12 Suggestions Teaching Your Child to Identify and Express Emotions
Our emotions dominate our ways of acting, logic comes along afterward – and sometimes has to correct or try to block our emotional response. One of the most important stages in our development is learning to identify and express emotions – in a controlled and useful way.
Psychologists call our ability to manage our emotions – our Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ). You can help to raise your child with a high EQ – and that will fundamentally help him to be happier and more secure, and give him a better quality of life.
According to scientific research, adults who have a high EQ are more successful and happier than people with a lower EQ. One of the most important findings was that close relationships are a key factor in how happy and healthy an adult will be.
The first and crucial relationship is the one they have with their parent or primary care-giver. When this is loving and supportive the first steps in emotional intelligence are being taken. Without this crucial first step, it will be difficult for the older child or adult to learn to control their emotions.
Your children will meet many challenges throughout their lives, and how they manage their emotions will determine how successful they are in resolving them. But as young children, their minds are awash with feelings in a bright chaos of ideas and sensations. You can help them make sense of these emotions, to identify them, and express them.
Let’s look at 12 key suggestions here:
1. It starts with trust
So it all starts with trust. Let your infant know you are there when she needs you, pick her up when she cries, talk to her gently, sing to her, and enjoy her company. Make her feel she is loved and cared for from the earliest age.
Ask them about their day. Was there anything they found good – or hard? (A dimly lit room for bedtime story is the perfect setting for a sharing of confidences.) You may be surprised to find they were afraid of something, and you can reassure them – or if the fear is justified, deal with it for them.
This may be a time when real worries are expressed. Important things like an absent father, a bullying teacher, a learning disability. You will need to help them understand that it’s OK to be sad but that you are there to support them, and they can rely on you. Tell them it’s brave of them to confide in you. Let them know they can always talk to you about it.
2. Stay calm and find a way to help express anger
Children model their parents’ behaviour. They have to – it’s a survival strategy. They depend upon you, and they will be sensitive to how you are feeling. If you feel anxious or cross they will pick it up, so it’s important to help yourself with calming techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or calming music. You’ll feel better for it and your child will follow your example.
When your children are angry – that’s OK there is probably a reason. Anger is an energetic emotion and you can encourage your child to say they are angry and why. They can be allowed to stamp their feet or you might distract them by star jumps or stomping around – but hitting is a “NO”. As they see you are calm and collected they will copy your behaviour and calm down. Then, and only then you can discuss the problem.
You will have heard the expression – “counting to 10” before speaking out. Taking a few deep breaths together works well, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. You can make wobble sounds as you breathe out which can be funny.
Unfortunately, many video games are too violent – that is not the way you want your child to respond!
3. Empathy – show your child that you understand
Mother-love is said to be all-encompassing. You love her when she’s tired and angry, you love him when he throws a temper tantrum. And children often look up to and respect their fathers, who can offer their strength to their calm.
As your child starts communicating with definite actions and as speech develops, you will be able to ask him how he is feeling. Give him time to tell you. They are far from fluent, but if you pay attention and give them time you can pick up on some of the emotions churning away inside them. Accept them. Show them you understand, that they are not alone.
Later you will need to offer suggestions as to how they could deal with something that has upset them. They can’t help feeling hurt or angry – but they can learn to cope in an acceptable way.
4. Repression and punishment?
Repression and punishment have no place in helping a child recognize their emotions. You can’t help how you feel. Punishment makes bad feelings worse. And you don’t want your child to learn to repress their emotions. The feelings do not fade, the sadness or anger sits simmering in their mind, and it’s hard for them to move forward. And sometimes the repressed motion will burst forth at a very unsuitable time.
It’s better if your child can learn to express their feelings in an acceptable way.
It can be mind-blowing to monitor your own moods!
5. Teach your child to calm themselves
When your little one is hurt you naturally soothe them. You give them a cuddle, stroke their hair, and talk quietly to them. When this doesn’t happen the children find it difficult to learn to calm themselves.
One of the ways to soothe yourself is to have positive self-talk. There is usually a little voice inside your head and all too often it’s negative and whining. Teach your child to have encouraging voices – and in a pleasant tone of voice. “You can do it, you can do it,” or “You did that well,” are so much better than, “Well, that was rubbish.” This will help your child stay calmer and work through the difficulty. (It’s good for the adult, too!”
Emotional Freedom Techniques. These involve tapping specific points on your body and can be easily learned. Studies on university students have demonstrated that EFT or TFT can be effective in reducing fear. If you would like to find out more there are some links at the end of this article.
6. Show your child their strengths
Children have different temperaments. Some are naturally placid and calm while others fret and worry. About half of these differences can be due to our genes and the other half to our environment. We can’t change our genes but we can help our environment. This includes our earliest years which set the tone for when we go out into the wider world of nursery and then big school. Our choice of friends, our teachers, and our freedom to develop all affect our emotions.
Every child has their own strengths. When you have your special time with your little one, build up their self-confidence by telling them about how good they in certain ways -you may need to tell them as even children can’t always mind-read, fortunately
7. Problem solving and distraction
When a child feels hurt or angry, show them how to solve the problem. Often kids manage on their own but they may welcome your help. Brainstorm with them, but don’t take over – your child must know that you trust him to sort things out, unless, of course, they are matters for an adult to handle.
You may need to intervene and distract your child. Do it while you still feel fairly calm yourself! Yelling is counter-productive! As many children often kick off with little warning it’s useful to have a strategy ready in your head and a box of toys, easily accessible but out of the way to help you. Sometimes you can distract with a joke or a song – and pets provide a perfect distraction.
8. The pursuit of happiness
Everyone wants to be happy but it’s not something you can just pull off a shelf and own. However, some habits promote a happy state of mind. These include healthy eating, enough quality sleep, connecting with other people, and, guess that – regular smiling and laughing. It’s hard to feel cross if you have plastered a big grin across your face.
One of the fastest ways to change your mood is music. In the far off days of the silent screen, there was always a musician to play before the film started. Just be sure to choose pleasant, relaxing music though. Another mood changer is a walk in the fresh air, even in town. Finding things to enjoy on your walk is distracting and interesting – and when you walk with a child they point out the most amazing things that you would otherwise have passed blindly by.
Let your child know you are happy on the walk. Too often we are content and never know it!
Giving and receiving give joy to giver and recipient alike. Let your child give, and find the pleasure in contributing to family life or in pleasing you.
9. Grief and how to help
Grief can be overwhelming. Often it starts with the loss of a much-loved pet. It’s OK to show your sorrow. And you need to allow your child to be sad. Acknowledge their grief. Let them have time to realize that their pet won’t be coming back – and help them to retain the good memories. They may want to make a card to keep or a picture or poem as a way of expressing how they feel.
And then you have to help them move on in an unhurried and sensitive manner. If they want to talk about it – let them – it’s their way of dealing with it. We all lose loved ones during our lives – as they say – death and taxes are the only two certainties, and we have to learn to live with that. There are children’s books that can be a useful talking point.
10. Stop it – now!
Boys and girls have to learn to stop, “No” means “No and “Stop” means “Stop”. Tickling is a great way to learn and practice this.
A persistent kid might need firm guidance – but never make a rule you can’t enforce or seek a battle you can’t win. Explain that “you understand they are sorry to have to stop when they were having such fun – but it is time for bed, now. You can play this again tomorrow.”
If you are away from home, you may have to deal with a temper tantrum. Again, you have to be firm despite people, who are rude enough to stare. Ask your child, tell them, and pick them up and make them. After they have calmed down you can talk about it, find out what was really going on inside their little heads, and say that you understand how they felt but sometimes they have to do what you ask.
He has to come to understand that he doesn’t always get what he wants when he wants, he has to learn to wait.
11. Dealing with disappointment
It’s OK to feel sad or angry. Let your child tell you – and then help them to deal with it. Resilience is a great personality trait but it has to be learned. Show them how to put their disappointment aside – there are other fish to fry! If you can make them laugh – great. But it does take a certain maturity to learn to laugh at yourself and they mustn’t feel you are mocking them.
When they have tried to do something – and couldn’t manage it they probably feel frustrated. Show them that when they try again – and again – they might succeed. Help them to find out why they couldn’t do it and help them try in a slightly different way. We do learn by our mistakes; by the way we deal with failure. Perseverance is a quality that can be a useful tool in a successful life. Look at the way a toddler learns to walk – trial after trial, and bump after bump, until he makes it.
12. Jealousy – reassure your child that you love them
Sibling rivalry and jealousy can be very damaging for a child. To feel you are not loved as much as your brother or sister can be devastating. Your child may not even be able to express his fear. You might need to reassure them even before they cry. One example is when the older child is allowed to stay up longer than his younger brother or sister. You need to be very clear that it’s because Mark is older – and when they are six they, too can stay up later. Add something like this, “This gives me the chance to be together with you – our special time.” But never fall into the trap of saying you love him more than Mark – just that you love them equally.
Teaching your child to identify and express emotions is one of the most important ways to help your child live a happier and more fulfilled life. People with a high emotional intelligence quotient do better than those who have never learn to control their emotions – and emotions are at the heart of our behaviours.
There are many ways to help your child – but first, you need to look into yourself because your child will model their behaviour on yours. Quite a responsibility!
“Tapping Away Trauma: ‘Emotional Freedom’ Technique” by Serina Deen, M.D., MPH http://www.huffingtonpost.com/serina-deen-md-mph/eft_b_1536431.html
Church, Dawson (2013). Clinical EFT as an Evidence-Based Practice for the Treatment of Psychological and Physiological Conditions. Psychology 4, No.8, 645-654. http://file.scirp.org/pdf/PSYCH_2013081215123494.pdf
Feinstein, D. (2010). Rapid Treatment of PTSD: Why Psychological Exposure with Acupoint Tapping May Be Effective. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(3), 385-402.
Feinstein, D. (2012). Acupoint stimulation in treating psychological disorders: Evidence of efficacy. Review of General Psychology, 16, 364-380.
Waite W, Holder M. (2003). Assessment of the Emotional Freedom Technique: An Alternative Treatment for Fear. The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice (2) 1.