It’s important to learn how to communicate all the emotions we feel, but some are more difficult to express than others.
Children sometimes mistakenly learn we should avoid certain emotions, like anger, sadness or loneliness. Adults might say things like, “Don't get so upset about that,” or “You need to calm down,” or “When I was your age …”
What children need to learn is how to express any emotion they feel in an appropriate way, because we all experience a wide range of emotions as a regular part of life. Avoiding unpleasant emotions only serves to leave children unprepared for the times they will inevitably experience them.
Here is a list of do’s and don’ts when interacting with the children in your life:
- Validate their feelings. “Thanks for telling me you are feeling ______.”
- Encourage words. “Your behavior is telling me you are upset. Can you tell me how you are feeling?”
- Set boundaries. “I know you are feeling angry but hitting is not an appropriate way to express that feeling. What could you do differently next time?”
- Role play. Sometimes there is anticipation of anxiety, frustration, excitement or another emotion that you can role play to help them learn to express themselves. See activities below for ideas.
- Dismiss their feelings. “You don’t need to get angry over this little thing,” or “Why do you always feel so nervous? You’ve done this 1,000 times!”
- Miss an opportunity. When a child finally does use some language or an appropriate way to express themselves, take the time to notice and compliment them, even if the emotion is negative. “I know you’re feeling sad right now, but I wanted to tell you I’m proud of you for…”
- Respond to poor expression with more poor expression. This one is difficult, but when they express anger, sadness or another difficult emotion by misbehaving, even if directed at you, responding with more negative emotion does not lead to a good outcome. Respond with sympathy and try to coach them toward a better way to express themselves. Sometimes this can only happen after a cool-down period, but come back to it when you can.
These activities will help you teach children how to express a range of emotions in a healthy way.
1. Create emotion conversation cards (all ages):
These cards are designed to help children think through situations where they might feel a strong emotion and to plan for how to express themselves in a helpful way.
2. Written prompts (middle school):
These writing prompts encourage children to think through the current way they express a variety of emotions as well as write plans for the future.
3. Creative writing and/or art project:
- Write a story about a character who feels the way you do today or create a fictional story where the main character expresses strong emotions to people around them. How do they express themselves?
- Examples: First day of school, left out of a game, winning the big game, moving to a new city.
- Illustrate the story or create some art to express the emotions in the story.
The following activities are brought to you by our partners at JOANN. JOANN is partnering with On Our Sleeves to help improve mental wellness for children and their families through creative expression opportunities, raising funds in their stores and bringing visibility to resources.
4. Throw a Fit (elementary)
Kids can create a "fit" to throw, which helps them express frustration when words might be difficult to find. They can throw their fit without physically acting out.
5. Puppet Pals (elementary)
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, express them appropriately and manage strong emotions through puppet play.
6. Fill in the Feelings (late elementary and middle school)
This activity helps children create a personalized action plan about what they need to best manage different emotions they feel. Adults can help them refer to this list to find productive ways to cope with difficult emotions.
Download all of Step 4: Expressing Emotions Appropriately Emotional Empowerment Activities.
Get PDF copies of On Our Sleeves' Conversation Cards, Written Prompts, and JOANN instructions for Throw A Fit, Puppet Pals, and Fill in the Feelings.