Once children learn emotion words and start noticing as they feel them in the moment, it’s important they learn how to communicate what they are feeling. This can be hard because children sometimes mistakenly learn we should avoid certain emotions, like anger, sadness or loneliness. Adults might say things like, “Stop crying,” or “You need to calm down,” or “It could be a lot worse.”
Instead, children need to learn we all experience a wide range of emotions as a regular part of life and that it is good to express any emotion they feel.
How to Help Kids Express Emotions
The best way to teach kids to express emotions is by making the time to talk about them and normalizing all feelings.
- Check-in. Create a habit of conversation with your child. Find a time to talk every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
- This will let them know you care, you are listening, and you are there to support them.
- Conversations can help us understand how children are feeling and experiencing their environment.
- Praise. When a child uses emotion words or an appropriate way to express themselves, take the time to notice and compliment them.
- For example, saying things like “Thank you for sharing you’re feeling angry instead of slamming the door.”
- Validate. All emotions are normal and OK, even if you don’t think you would feel the same way.
- Say things like “I understand you’re nervous, we all feel that way sometimes” instead of dismissing how they feel (“there’s nothing here to be afraid about. It’s no big deal”).
- You can also share moments where you felt that emotion and how you coped with it.
- Encourage Pause. Many parents share that their child will go “from 0 to 100” so quick. What is likely happening is that the child is ignoring the cues from their body that they are starting to get upset.
- As adults, we can encourage children to be more mindful of their thoughts and feelings and to take a pause to check-in with themselves.
- Kids can ask themselves things like, “How does my body feel right now? What thoughts are going through my mind?” This will help them identify their emotion and express it in a helpful way, instead of letting the emotion take control of them.
- Children learn by watching you.
- Express your emotions out loud so that they know it’s okay for them to do the same thing.
- Also, remember that children are learning to regulate, so they may still act out sometimes. When they express anger, sadness or another difficult emotion by misbehaving, responding with more negative emotion does not help. Respond with sympathy and try to coach them toward a better way to express themselves.
Activities to Practice Expressing Emotions
- Have your child draw, write, or tell a story about a character who feels a strong emotion. How do they express themselves?
- For younger children, puppets are a great way to create characters who can express different emotions and act them out in a playful way. Adults can help practice difficult events and how to identify the emotions and express them appropriately.
We want to validate and normalize all emotions so that children feel comfortable talking about what they’re experiencing on the inside. Find those moments to check-in and always praise when you catch them using emotion words. Learn how you can teach children how to cope with those strong emotions.