Frowns, tears, meltdowns.
Smiles, giggles, belly laughs.
These are all natural reactions to the many emotions we feel...every single day.
Feelings come and go on a regular basis, just like clouds in the sky. And learning how to express how you feel, rather than just react, is super difficult. Did you know that understanding and managing emotions is actually a developmental skill?
This is why it is often referred to as emotional intelligence (EQ).
As a speech therapist and mom, I have often said “use your words” to my children, assuming that they know how they feel and how to express those feelings. But this is not always the case, especially for children with language, attentional, or regulation delays. Or even if they don’t have challenges in these areas, it can be hard for children (or adults) to express their feelings when they are flooded with emotions.
This is why we see outward behaviors that might be difficult to understand. But if we think about these behaviors as communication, without getting triggered by them, we can lean in with curiosity and empathy to help. This is the fun part! We can help kids increase their awareness, understanding, and ability to communicate so they can “use their words” or another form of communication and be able to get their wants and needs met with more ease.
Here are four general ways to help your child learn how to express their feelings along with this month’s calendar, which is filled with daily ideas to inspire you to build these skills with your child in your home environment.
1. Modeling and talking about your feelings
Children are watching us and absorbing what they see and hear us doing and saying. Whether we like it or not, it’s like they are trying to mirror us. There are actually neurons in our brain e called mirror neurons that do just that! And we can embrace this knowledge and use it to our advantage by modeling how to express our feelings in an effective way. We can use our words when we are feeling angry, worried, or overwhelmed.
Children can also watch us respond and cope with these feelings in a healthy way like taking a deep breath, taking a break, or asking for a hug. And if you are able to express what you are doing to care for your feelings, that is even more beneficial so that kids can learn the language and the tools. For example, instead of just leaving the room, you can say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now; I’m going to take a quick break and go for a walk.”
2. Teaching emotion words through books and media
There are plenty of picture books that are great for teaching and talking about emotions. Here is a book list I have created for your reference. There are also excellent graphic novels for teens and young adults that can be used in similar ways. I encourage you to use any book, comic, story, movie, or other media to pause and point out how the characters are feeling and discuss their facial expressions, body language, and behavior. For example, “I noticed that Garfield’s hair is sticking straight up; what do you think he is feeling?” Or, “Harry Potter must be feeling nervous about the upcoming Quidditch game How can you tell?” These types of questions and activities bring awareness and help label feelings. Make a list of emotions to discuss and look for in everyday situations.
3. Daily Check-Ins
As we mentioned above, feelings come and go throughout the day. By checking in with your child and asking simple questions like, “How are you feeling?” or, “I notice that your head is low today, what’s up?” or having them do a “check in” with photos or other visual systems, we can help them pause to think about their emotions and practice labeling them with words. Use fun visuals like emojis or other characters that your child likes to peak their interest. Make sure to pair these visuals with words that will give them a vocabulary for describing emotions and expanding on their emotional literacy. You can also ask them to tell you their highs and lows of the day or how they are feeling on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being unhappy and 5 being ecstatic.
If your child struggles to identify their feelings in general or in that particular moment, do not force it. Revert to modeling your own feelings or continuing to teach through other situations such as books, movies, or observing real-life situations. If it is not a trigger for your child, try pointing out when you notice how he /she is likely experiencing a particular feeling.
4. Look for everyday teachable moments.
You might be asking, what the heck is a teachable moment? This is a term that is commonly used in education, but is relevant for home as well. It’s the idea of using a situation, event, or experience as an opportunity for learning. Harnessing things that you are already doing and being intentional while talking and teaching can build valuable life skills. This can look like observing social situations, modeling behaviors (mentioned above), providing examples in real time, prepping or priming your child ahead of time, and discussing, reflecting, and problem solving real-life situations.
As mentioned above, emotions are happening all day long, so using situations to become aware of them, label them, and teach skills for coping and managing them is what we mean by using teachable moments. Asking questions like, “Your sister looks so unhappy. I wonder why she’s upset?” or, “I wonder what he wants/needs to feel better?” are specific examples of how to engage in these moments to build skills.
As children begin to understand their emotions and express their feelings, they are less likely to act out with aggression, tantrums, shut down, or defiance. Check out this monthly calendar with more suggestions and daily ideas to help your child build their emotional intelligence and coping skills so that they can be more calm, confident, and connected to themselves and others.