One of the important things parents do for their kids is teach them vocabulary for things that are part of their everyday life, ideas that are important to understand, and skills that will help them succeed in their future life. Some of the most essential vocabulary to teach is that of emotions. What words do we use to describe emotions? How do we recognize what someone else may be feeling? How do we recognize and manage our own feelings? Understanding these ideas builds emotional intelligence.
Benefits of Emotional Intelligence
Children and adults with a high degree of emotional intelligence gain many benefits:
- They experience fewer negative emotions and they can calm themselves down more quickly when they experience them
- They develop a wide array of coping skills for handling everyday frustrations and bouncing back from major challenges
- They do better in school and at work – partially because they’re better at focusing attention and not being distracted by feelings
- They have more empathy – which helps them succeed in relationships
- They have fewer infectious illnesses (and in the long-run, may struggle less with eating disorders, stress-related illnesses, etc.)
- Were less likely to experience peer rejection, negative interactions with teachers, and school failure
Teaching the Words for Feelings
As early as 3 months, our children begin experiencing emotions like happiness, sadness, fear and anger. Yet, when I’ve spoken to parents of one-year-olds about talking to their kids about feelings, I’ve had parents respond – “but they’re just not old enough to understand that yet are they?”
Well no, not fully… Developmental researchers say kids don’t start to really understand the reasons why they feel the way they feel until about age 2. But, they absolutely are experiencing emotions at 1. And often they’re experiencing them as an overwhelming flow of incomprehensible feeling. (When your toddler has an emotional meltdown, that can be quite scary for them…)
We know how powerful kids feel when they start learning words and start being able to use those words to communicate with others. So, with our 6 month old, every time we hand them a banana, we say “banana”. We know they won’t get it for a while, but we keep saying it until they get it. And some day they’re so proud and excited when they ask for a banana and you give it to them.
We can do the same thing with the word “mad” or “sad.” And some day, when your child is overwhelmed with frustration about something and is about to melt down, just having you say “wow, you’re really mad aren’t you?” can help them begin to understand and calm that overwhelming feeling.
Teaching how feelings are expressed
We want our children to be empathetic, and we want them to be able to interpret how others are feeling. Often people’s words tell us little about how they feel about something… we figure that out by looking at their faces, watching their body language, and listening to the tone of their voice. We can help our children learn this skill.
Facial expressions and body language – Here are some ways to teach kids about how feelings are reflected on our faces:
- Read a book series called Let’s Look at Feelings, which is great for 1 – 4 year olds. It includes books like What I look like when I’m Scared, which shows photos of people looking frightened.
- A good book series for 3-4 year olds is The Way I Feel books, like When I Feel Sad which talk about some of the reasons someone might feel that way, lets them know it’s OK to feel that way, and that the feeling will pass.
- When you’re reading any book (or watching any movie), point to a character and ask your child how that character is feeling. Talk about how you can tell.
- When people watching, help your child notice expressions and body language. Ask them to guess how the other person is feeling. If you see a child crying somewhere or someone gets mad in the playground, use this as an opportunity to talk (quietly) with your child about how that person is feeling.
- Play the “make a face” game where you take turns following commands like “make a sad face”, “make a silly face.”
- Make simple stick puppets with sad faces, happy faces, etc. and do puppet shows with them. Or make a chart showing lots of expressions, and talking about them… Here’s a whole Pinterest collection of 63 ways to teach kids about emotions: https://www.pinterest.com/simplesongs/teaching-emotions/
- And more ideas from NAEYC: http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200611/BTJFoxSupplementalActivities.pdf
Listening to the tone of voice – ways to teach them how
- When you read books that have emotional content, use your voice as expressively as you can. Sound mad when the character in the book is mad. Sound happy when the character is happy, and so on. It’s a great chance for your child to learn about emotional tone in a safe context.
- John Medina, in Brain Rules for Babies (affiliate link), says one of the most important things for building emotional intelligence is to have our kids take music lessons. Being able to hear different tones helps us better interpret the emotional messages in people’s voices.
Teaching them to recognize their own feelings
When your young child is having strong emotions, label the feeling for him. (Do your best guess at what they’re feeling!)
As they get older, you may ask if you’re not sure “Are you feeling mad or scared?” Try not to push a feeling on them that they’re not having by mis-labeling. We’ve all had that time where someone said to us “that must have made you really frustrated” and we think “well no, not really….”
Once they’re getting a grasp on what a feeling is, we want them to start learning to recognize when that feeling is starting to happen. Help them notice – what are the cues that tell them they’re starting to feel strongly? Tears welling up or feeling ‘choked up’ mean they’re feeling sad. A steely glare or clenched fists may show them they’re getting angry.
It’s really important to learn to notice when big feelings are just starting to escalate. They are manageable when small. When they get big, they can lead to meltdowns. Here are tools for talking about big feelings and managing them.
Eventually, we want to help them learn about triggers… what tends to cause them to feel that way? What can they do to reduce the occurrence of that trigger, or what can they do to keep themselves calm when they can’t avoid that trigger happening?
Teaching appropriate expression of emotion
It is natural and healthy for us to feel emotions in response to things that happen. Some ways of expressing those emotions are OK – like saying you’re mad. Some are not OK – like hitting someone or breaking something because you’re mad. We want to teach our children that their FEELINGS are always OK. But sometimes their BEHAVIOR is not. We can, and should, set appropriate limits on behavior.
We should also help our children learn about appropriate ways to express emotion.
- Sing the song If you’re Happy and You Know it, but add in verses like “If you’re Mad and you know it, stomp your feet” and “If you’re sad and you know it you can cry.”
- You could read the book series Feelings for Little Children, which includes When you’re Mad and You Know It that gives options for ways to express that feeling.
- Anger is a big feeling for a little person to manage, and they often need physical ways to let it out, so running around the house, or stomping their feet, or hitting a pillow, or pounding on play-dough may be good outlets.
- I have made three posters which collect ideas for appropriate ways to express feelings.
When our children get older – maybe elementary school age – we may also begin talking to them about appropriate times and places to express emotions, and help them learn how to calm themselves at school and in social situations and then to process those emotions when they’re at home and/or with close friends and family. But a three year old is not ready for those lessons yet! They have a lot of brain growth and emotional development to get through before they can self-regulate their emotions to that degree.
Teaching about causes for feelings – practicing emotions
Read books to your child that show a wide range of emotions. Read them with emotional tone in your voice (see above). Watch movies with a wide range of emotional experiences. Talk about the feelings. Ask your child when they have felt that way. Ask for suggestions for how the character could handle that feeling.
Some books I like for preschoolers that show a nice emotional arc: When Sophie Gets Angry and Owl Babies. Other books that are frequently recommended for teaching about emotions are: Today I feel silly by Curtis; The Way I Feel by Cain, My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, and Glad Monster / Sad Monster by Ed Emberley. (Read more about all my recommended kids’ books about feelings.)
As your child gets older, it’s OK to let them read sad books. We called it the “Old Yeller” phenomenon. When I read Old Yeller as a child, I cried and cried and cried. Then I read it again, and cried and cried again. But letting your child sob over a book lets them practice those feelings, when they know it’s just fiction and they can let it go. It’s very helpful if they’ve practiced grieving over lots of fictional dogs before their own dog dies. Or helpful if they’ve practiced through lots of fictional breakups with boyfriends before experiencing their own.
Won’t talking about being sad just prolong the feeling?
Some parents struggle with seeing their child sad. They often try to “cheer them up” as quickly as possible, offering toys, food, or other distractions to “make it better.” This could lead to long-term bad habits, like using food for comfort or practicing retail therapy – buying more till you feel better. But, more importantly, it doesn’t honor the child’s emotional experience, instead dismissing it, and it doesn’t teach the child that they process their feelings and move through sadness into feeling better.
To learn about ideas / techniques for teaching emotional intelligence in the classroom, check out this NY Times article on Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught.
This Social Emotional Pathways document talks about all the developmental stages of social emotional learning.
Janet Lansbury on the Importance of Acknowledging Emotions.
Multiple lists of recommended books for teaching preschoolers about emotions:
And the biggest list of book recommendations, sorted by emotion: http://www.leoncountyfl.gov/library/youth-child/images/Emotions-by-category.pdf