Ministry of Education, Guyana

Helping Kids Express Their Emotions

Expressing emotions and having them accepted and validated is important for both children and grown-ups. And there’s a whole spectrum of emotions to feel! While many grown-ups view emotions as good or bad, the truth is that emotions are not good or bad — they just are. Emotions are a gift. To be a well-balanced individual who experiences the full range of human experiences, we will eventually experience the full range of emotions that come along with that existence.

The problem or challenge is this: Emotions can be a big experience, and children may not yet know how to handle them. And if a grown-up didn’t have the experience of learning to express their emotions as a child, it can feel like a tough task to help our children express their emotions. How can we help them do something if we have little to no experience with it?

Here are a few steps to follow to help your children express their emotions.

As a pediatric psychologist and parent coach, I find that when children, teens, adults, and parents understand why they felt an emotion, why they had a thought, or why they chose to react in a certain way, they can better understand themselves. They can begin to make connections between feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and events. Education is such a powerful tool! Educating your children about their emotions helps them better express themselves. Here are some ways you can educate your children about their emotions:

  • Feelings chart with faces. Point to each face, say the feeling, and define it (good for younger kids).
  • List of feeling words. Talk about the feeling, when they felt it, how they responded, and how they would have preferred to respond (good for older kids).
  • Play a game of Candy Land, Twister, Uno. Assign an emotion to each color. When a player lands on or picks a color, they share a time when they felt that emotion (good for all ages).

Or try singing along with Daniel Tiger and his friends to some of his favorite songs about feelings.

Once your child is more aware and in tune with various emotions, listen to them when they express themselves. Refrain from labeling emotions as good ones or bad ones. Allow them to express the emotions they feel. Even if their emotions are expressed in a way that feels overwhelming, exhausting, or insulting to you, truly listen to the need being expressed behind their emotion. Ask yourself: What are they truly saying to me with this tantrum, whining, explosion? What do they really need? Then reflect the feeling back to them. Combine the behavior with the emotion and the physical body experiences. Here’s an example:

Your son has asked for chocolate ice cream for dessert, but there’s no more left. He begins to scream, yell, and roll around on the kitchen floor. You say (in the calmest voice you can channel): “You are so disappointed [feeling word] that we ran out of chocolate ice cream. Ugh. I’m disappointed too. I don’t like when things don’t work out the way I expected either. You really want me to know how you feel by rolling around on the floor. I see you. I hear you.” Find solutions: “I wonder if we can be super creative. I wonder if there is something else we can find that we can make for dessert.” Then just sit with those emotions (both of you).

Model healthy emotional expressions.
As you probably already know, our children are watching, observing, and copying us all the time. So, the way you handle changed plans, perceived failures, and frustrations will be reflected in their words, thoughts, and behaviors too. Does this mean you always need to watch what you say and do and try to have the perfect response to every situation? Of course not. That is unrealistic and quite exhausting.

Process your thoughts and feelings about a situation out loud while your child is present: “Oh my. I should not have taken this road [internal self talk said out loud]. I should have listened to my gut [addressing options you could have taken]. I’m so frustrated with this traffic [stating the real emotion]. I just want to scream [stating the real desire to react with a specific behavior]. But, I will put on some relaxing music and take some deep breaths [healthier response and appropriate regulation]. Do you want to talk about something fun and cool to take my mind off my frustration [remaining connected even when you want to lose it and shut down]?”

Even if you didn’t have good models with how to express emotions, you can start right where you are. You can teach and raise children who know how to express their emotions in healthier ways. It’s hard work, but so worth it. Rooting for you!


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