Emotional literacy skills – the ability to “read” (recognize) feelings in other people, the ability to read your own feelings (notice your internal cues), and to express your feelings appropriately are all incredibly important to your child’s long-term success.
How you can help:
- Teach vocabulary: start with the basic emotions of glad, mad, sad, and scared. As their grasp of those basics deepens, add in more nuanced terms:
- Glad – happy, content, calm, excited, eager, loved, proud, thrilled, delighted…
- Mad – annoyed, irritable, frustrated, angry, outraged…
- Sad – disappointed, lonely, wistful, left out, bummed, grieving…
- Scared – frightened, surprised, terrified, startled…
- Label emotions in the moment. When your child is experiencing an emotion is the best time to label it, or when they see you or a child at the park experiencing an emotion. Just like with all language development, it’s easiest to learn a word when they’re having a concrete experience of it. (For example, If you want to teach the word banana, show your child a banana, peel it, eat it. If you want to teach the word sad, use it when they’re sad. We won’t talk in great detail about it at that moment, but we do want to give them the label so they know “this is what sad feels like.”)
- Talk about emotions when you see them in books and videos, when the child is not experiencing those emotions. Once they’ve grasped what the word “sad” is, it may be easier to talk about things like “what makes people sad”, “how can you tell when someone is sad”, and “what makes someone feel better when they’re sad” when your child is not feeling sad.
- Talk about positive feelings more than about negative feelings. (Following the attention principle… Your child will most often repeat behaviors that get the most attention from you. Praising behaviors like calm, sweet, gentle, happy and so on lets your child know that these are behaviors that you like to see. Talking all the time about their angry outbursts may only perpetuate a self image of themselves as “a kid who is angry all the time.”)
- Also share your own positive feelings with them: “I am so proud of you” and “I was delighted to see how well you two played together today.”
- When you comment on an uncomfortable emotion, add a coping strategy: “I see that you’re frustrated, maybe you can take a quick break then try again.” “That noise scared you, do you want to ask me about it?” “That made you really sad, so you came over for a hug.”
- Also comment on your own coping skills. “I am really frustrated, so I’m taking a few deep breaths to calm down.” “I was worried about that, so I talked to Dad to get some ideas about what to do.” “I’m feeling sad today, so I’m going to take a little break now.”
- Praise children when they manage difficult feelings: “I know you were angry. You did a good job of keeping your fists down.” “You were really frustrated by that puzzle, but you stuck to it and tried, and you did it!”
Understanding the Stages of Emotion
I’ve written before about the Anatomy of a Tantrum. and how to time your intervention. In The Incredible Years, Webster-Stratton talks about stages in the build-up of tension: first the child is grouchy or sulking, then becomes more tense and moody. That can escalate to an explosive outburst, followed by the depression / “leave me alone” stage, then your child may resume normal activities as if nothing had happened.
If we can recognize the beginning stages – when they’re starting to become angry or frustrated – we may be able to intervene with suggestions like talking about their feelings, taking a few deep breaths or trying other solutions. However, during a full blown tantrum or during the sulk that follows, they are too dis-regulated to respond to our suggestions and problem-solving. Intervention may only make the tantrum worse, or provide attention that reinforces the tantrum. Webster-Stratton says “it is best for the parent to ignore while monitoring to make sure that the child is safe.”
Ideally, we want our children to notice their own cues that their emotions are starting to escalate. We want them to be able to catch themselves in that first stage, and talk themselves down. That won’t happen when they’re two or three years old. But if we talk to them about self-soothing, and model emotional regulation, they’ll get there sooner than if we don’t talk about it!
Teaching your Child to Recognize Cues
Be concrete when talking about what cues tell us we’re feeling an emotion or what cues tell us how others are feeling.
- When you’re feeling emotional, describe your internal feelings.
- When your child is showing a mild emotion (their brow is getting furrowed, their face is drooping in sadness, or they’re starting to make fists) make observations about these cues, and ask them how they’re feeling. (Note: don’t do this when they’re in a full meltdown – having a meltdown narrated will likely only make it worse.)
- Talk about body language and what it conveys about how someone is feeling. There are some useful examples here and here.
- When reading books or watching videos, point out cues: “I can tell she’s sad, because…”
- Online, you can find lots of teaching tools about emotional cues that show a wide variety of facial expressions (like the picture at the top of this post) or others about “how to draw facial expressions. Print one out to discuss with your child. (Or parents have made stick puppets showing ranges of emotion.)
- In your pretend play, or in puppet shows, model a range of emotional expressions and coping strategies.
The Feelings Thermometer
A helpful tool can be to create an emotional thermometer for your child. (If you search for “emotions thermometer for kids” you’ll find multiple examples.) On the “cold” end, it has sad. Then in the area where you would find moderate temperatures, it has calm, then happy, and so on. Then in the high temperature range you have different levels of anger. Once you’ve explained it to your child, they can use it to show you how they’re feeling today, and what they could do to “cool down” or “warm up.” You may recommend that if they reach a certain high temperature, they should remove themselves from the situation for a time out to cool down.
A thermometer may work best for kids who are 5 or older, or 4 year olds who have a grasp of numbers and measurement. For 2 and 3 year olds, it may be better to use your hands to show how big a feeling is. Hold your thumb and finger close together to show an “itty bitty” emotion or hold your hands far apart to show a great big feeling.