By Alison Mays, MSW, LCSW
A child’s ability to regulate emotions increases with age, but you can help develop these skills – even as early as 2 years of age. Talking about feelings and what to do with them helps children develop self awareness and healthy feelings expression.
You can help younger children appropriately identify their feelings by using pictures of faces depicting different emotions. Feelings faces or charts found online can be a useful tool to expand feelings vocabulary. Have your child imagine what the faces are feeling. Ask young children questions like “how would you feel if your favorite toy broke?” or “how do you feel when you are eating ice cream?” For older children, you can help them to explore the range and intensity of their emotions. For example: exploring the difference between feelings of anger and feelings of rage. “How are they different? Have you ever felt them? When have you felt them?” Asking questions such as these prompt awareness of feelings, positive or negative. I like to use “feelings drills” with children. A “feelings drill” is like a fire drill; it helps children prepare for how they may feel and act in a certain situation. “How would you feel if someone took your pencil at school? What would you do with that feeling? How would you let an adult know how you were feeling?” Using a “feelings drill” is also an opportunity for children to explore what to do with their feelings, particularly negative feelings, before they occur.
Validating your child’s feelings allows them to experience their emotions while feeling understood by you. Acknowledge their feelings with statements such as “I can see that you are angry/sad/excited” or “Wow, I can see that you are feeling something important, can you tell me about it?” Encourage your child to use their words to communicate to you what it is they are experiencing. Telling your child how to feel or not to feel is not helpful. Statements like “don’t be angry at your brother” or “cheer up; don’t be sad” give your child the message that what they are feeling is wrong or that they should be feeling something other than what they are. You do not have to agree with them or understand why they are feeling what they are in order to validate the feeling.
After identifying what it is the child is feeling and why, it is important to help them work through their feelings in a healthy way. Deep breathing is a very effective way to work through a negative emotion. Relaxation techniques can be taught and help a child work through their negative feelings while maintaining control of their behaviors. These techniques are best taught when a child is calm and not experiencing any negative emotions. Prompt the child to take three deep breaths (a long, slow inhale followed by a long, slow exhale) when they start to feel upset, then to state what they are feeling. This can be taught by having the child blow bubbles or by blowing up a balloon. Feelings come and feelings go; these techniques help children to experience that feelings are not permanent.
Working with your child to identify and express their emotions in a healthy manner will enhance their relationships with others and their overall well being. It will help develop a positive sense of themselves and comfort in their ever changing feelings.
Alison is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She received a Bachelor’s of Social Work degree from North Carolina State University and a Masters of Social Work degree from Boston College. She has experience working with children, adolescents and their families in multiple settings. She currently has a private practice in Wilmington, North Carolina. You can reach Alison at firstname.lastname@example.org.