As humans we all experience a variety of emotions in response to different situations. Little ones feel the same emotions that adults do - sometimes they just have trouble expressing them!

Imagine if you were unable to express your feelings in the midst of a big emotional response. It would be extremely frustrating! This article is going to review why helping children express their emotions is so important, as well as some tips you can implement at home to help your child clearly express their feelings to others.

The Importance of Expressing Feelings

Helping children express their feelings can decrease frustration, minimize behavioral issues, and improve their emotional well-being.

Strong feelings are a natural part of life - but how we interpret, express, and respond to these feelings is vitally important. Everyday we express our thoughts and feelings to others, as well as read and understand the feelings of others so we can empathize with their situation. All of these skills start in the early years of childhood.

How to Teach Emotions

In order for children to learn how to express emotions, they first have to learn what each emotion is called. Use these tips to teach your child the names of emotions:

In the Moment Teaching

When your child is experiencing a pleasant emotion, like happiness or excitement, take the time to model the name of the emotion and explain it a little further. Here’s an example: “You seem happy! I see you are smiling. You look happy to have your snack!” Repetition of each emotion is key, so make sure to do this throughout your daily interactions.

If your child is experiencing an unpleasant emotion, like sadness or anger, you should name these emotions as well. However, it’s important to note that during an unpleasant emotion your child may be less likely to listen and absorb what you are saying. In some cases it may be better to wait until your child has calmed down before reflecting on how they felt.

Here are a few other ways you can do this. Talk with your child privately if you are out in public and witness another child experiencing an unpleasant emotion. You can also respond to how characters in their favorite books or movies are feeling. Both of these examples can help ensure you keep your child's attention.  

Parent Modeling

Similarly, model your own emotions. As you experience different feelings throughout the day, you can name them to your child. You can say things such as, “I’m so excited we are going to play at the park!” or “I am sad the rain is keeping us from going to the park.” Make sure to provide appropriate facial expressions, such as smiling or a slight frown, to further communicate these feelings to your child.

Pictures/Book Reading

Pictures and books that depict different facial expressions and feelings are excellent resources to help children learn emotions! Utilize these during some consistent, structured practice together.

Mirror Activities

One activity that your child will love is making different facial expressions for specific emotions in front of the mirror. Practice making faces for the feelings happy, sad, angry, scared, or excited. Name the emotion for your child so that they will learn the associated facial expressions with the feelings. Once they've made some progress, spend time asking your child to label the emotion themselves.

Use Pictures for Communication of Feelings

If your child is not yet consistently using words to communicate wants and needs, they may benefit from using pictures to communicate.

Here’s an easy idea: You can color a simple yellow smiley face, blue frowny face, and a red angry face on individual pieces of paper. Use these pictures yourself to teach and express emotions to your child. Make sure that your child can easily access these pictures throughout the day. If you notice your child experiencing a strong emotion, you can tell your child, “Show me how you’re feeling” and prompt them to use the pictures. Over time your child should begin to point to the picture correlated to their feeling all by themselves.

Feel free to have some fun with this activity. Instead of coloring pictures, you could even take pictures of yourself or your child making a variety of facial expressions for the different emotions. These make the task much more personal and relatable for the child. An actual photo also depicts emotions much better than a picture.

Structured Questions

It may take a while before a child spontaneously tells you, “I feel ______.” And that is okay!

Being able to communicate something as abstract as feelings, especially in the moment, is very challenging. It's completely normal if this takes time for little ones to learn and comprehend. One thing you can do in the meantime is offer your child some structured conversation to help make communication a little easier.

Let’s say your child is crying and clearly upset. Ask your child, “Are you sad?” then wait. Waiting is very important, as it gives your child time enough time to gather their thoughts and formulate a thoughtful response. Hopefully your child will be able to reply, “Yes” if this is how they are feeling.

Here's another tip to try: Give your child two choices. You can say, “Do you feel sad, or happy?” Again, hopefully your child will select the correct answer that fits their emotional state.

Spontaneously Expressing Emotions

As your child improves their skills with structured questions and exercises, it's time to encourage them to spontaneously express their emotions. You can do this by simply asking your child, “How do you feel?” throughout the day. As your child gets older, and practices routinely, they should be able to clearly answer this question independently. Responses such as, “I feel happy,” or “I feel excited” are fantastic signs that they're maturing and making progress.

To encourage this skill, give them frequent opportunities to express their feelings by asking them how they feel, or what’s wrong. Use the techniques reviewed previously until they are able to tell you their feelings independently without any prompting.

All About Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are a normal part of childhood, but one that can be very exhausting for parents! Tantrums often accompany difficulty in expressing feelings. Learning how to help your child navigate a tantrum may also indirectly help them stay calm to better express why they're upset in the first place.

If your child has a hard time calming down during a moment of hard emotions, check out this post from big little feelings. Big little feelings is run by Deena and Kristin, a child therapist and a parent coach.

The time and attention you invest in helping your child better express their feelings will serve them a lifetime. There may be some communication roadblocks along the way, but by implementing the techniques covered in this article, you’re sure to have a more confident communicator on your hands in no time!