Helping Children Understand Their Feelings

How are you feeling today? Happy, sad, angry, bored?

As adults, we can all give names to our emotions and they are familiar if not always welcome old companions. But how did we learn what feelings are and can we help our children better cope with theirs?

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Childhood

Happy boys.jpg

I can’t remember much about how I felt about life before the age of four or five years old. I had what people call a ‘happy childhood’, but there were obviously lots of times that something happened to make me feel sad, angry, embarrassed and so on. However, I don’t ever recall anyone explaining to me what feelings were or how to deal with them.

In those days I don’t think children’s feelings were given much consideration, not because adults didn’t care but, apart from hugs when you hurt yourself, children were just left to get on with growing up without being scrutinised or worried over.

Now that I’m a dad I can see that even the youngest children’s feelings are very real and raw and how our parents and other carers respond to these emotions can mould who we become as adults.

I’m not saying that if you fail to deal in exactly the right way with your child’s emotional world, or are occasionally a bit short with them, you’re going to mess them up for life. 

But I do think every parent has the opportunity to raise an emotionally aware and resilient child who will then be better able to deal with life and have respectful, nurturing relationships with others.

Helping Children Cope With Their Feelings

I think all that babies need is loads of love and affection, to feel safe, cared for and know that their needs will be met. But after the age of two things start to get a bit more complicated!

We spent much of last year dealing with a toddler whose world had imploded due to the arrival of his little brother, and I could see the raw and very powerful feelings he was experiencing. Unfortunately, we were both too tired and fraught to do much more than giving him a portion of the attention he craved and try to stop him hurting our new baby.

However, between the age of 2 and 3, you can start to help children put names to their basic emotions. At this age, you’re not going to be dealing with subtleties: sad, happy, angry, scared, and bored are probably as much as they can grasp. The easiest way to do this is to watch for them having a strong emotion and then acknowledging it.

For example, they see a friend and jump up and down or giggle. You can say: “Oh are you really happy to see Jack?” Or if they have a fight over a toy, once the dispute is resolved, there’s an opportunity to say: “Next time you get that feeling you can tell a grown-up that you’re feeling angry”.

Empathy is a tough skill to learn and most children are going to be very focused on their own emotions and needs before the age of 3. This will be obvious if you try to tell your preschooler that you’re too tired to play with them! But young children will start mimicking the way adults have responded to them, so if their friend is upset they might remember getting a hug from an adult when they were sad and go to comfort them.

Talking about the event later before bed helps to reinforce the connection between the word and the feeling and how your child reacted to the situation. It can also be easier to talk after the event about whether they could act differently next time. Maybe when someone falls over instead of pointing and laughing we can also go to check they’re ok?

Watching TV programmes together is another opportunity to comment on how the characters are feeling and how this is affecting their actions. Most children’s TV is built around basic situations and repetition so you shouldn’t have to wait long for Thomas or Peppa to show their feelings. I particularly like the way Bing handles emotions in relation to losing a toy or getting stuck in a cupboard; Mark Rylance’s voice for Flop is also very soothing!

There are also lots of books about feelings that are a great way to introduce these complex concepts with bright illustrations to inspire conversations.

We’ve been enjoying The Great Big Book of Feelings by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. This leads into the subject through a series of expressions and asks you to try and put a name to the feelings being expressed, acknowledging that ‘It isn’t always easy to tell’.

The Great Big Book of Feelings

The book then takes you through one feeling at a time, asking what makes you feel that way, and giving examples of situations where that emotion could appear.

I also like How Are You Feeling Today? by Molly Potter and Sarah Jennings. The style is more modern and it operates as a reference and self-help book that children can dip into on their own or with an adult to guide them. When you find the page that relates to your feeling there’s a selection of interactive strategies for dealing with that emotion.

You don’t have to buy anything to run an activity about emotions. Painting faces on paper plates, building characters from Lego, looking at family photos together, or doing a role play game where you take turns pretending to have a feeling and the other person has to guess what it is by how you look, act, and sound.

If your child is finding it hard to express how they are feeling you could set up an ’emotion zone’ somewhere at home where they go to sit if they need help with an emotion that’s worrying them, so you can take time out to talk. You could even leave some of the aforementioned books or games at the zone ready to help them put a name to their feelings.

Finally, there’s Inside Out, a film I am yet to watch with Billy and Frankie (mainly because we haven’t managed to watch anything longer than half an hour so far) but am looking forward to. Trying to explain an abstract concept like worried is very difficult without simply using the word:

“What does worried  mean Daddy?”

“Oh. Well, you know when you’re worried about…no…so let’s say you’ve lost a toy and you’re worried…Oh. Err.”

By turning feelings into characters Inside Out can follow the storytelling rule ‘Show, don’t tell’ and help children understand how emotions affect what we do, say, and think about the world. The story is told from the point of view of 11 year old Riley Anderson’s five basic feelings: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger – that gradually come to life and influence her actions via a console in her mind’s Headquarters.

So, I hope you’re feeling happy about my suggestions for helping your children understand their emotions. I’ll assume you weren’t bored if you read this far. And if I haven’t covered everything please don’t be angry with me.

Human emotions are complicated and I am sure I’ll be returning to this subject as the boys get older!

If children aren’t able to spot emotions in other people it might be a sign of autism so talk to your health visitor or GP about any concerns.




Categories: Advice

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2 replies »

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this – so important for adults to teach and model ‘f’* words with children right from the word go as real helps build emotional literacy and acknowledges *feelings.
    I teach/train a process called Protective Behaviours which is about empowerment and enhancing relationships and includes the idea that feelings are simply feelings – not good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative. Behaviour however is a choice with an effect and thinking influences both how we feel & behave.
    Hoping you might choose to visit to find some further information – it’s our community website so open to all 🙂
    You might also like to consider the idea of not allowing something to make anyone feel anything and replace with the script ‘I feel ….. when ….’ or ‘How did you feel when……’ because if something can make someone feel, the ‘thing’ then has the power 😦
    Looking forward to reading more of your blogs.
    Yours in safety and adventures,
    Sally Ann

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