It’s never too early to talk to kids about emotions. Kids’ inability to identify and express emotions is often reflected in their behaviour. According to available research, tantrums and aggressive behaviour can often be linked to unmanaged emotions.
When we teach kids to identify and manage their emotions, we give them important tools to navigate life. Emotion regulation is about teaching kids to identify emotions, gain awareness of the issues underlying different emotions, and come up with a plan to either deal with those issues or learn effective ways to tolerate situations they can’t change.
Evidence suggests that many emotions such as anger, jealousy or anxiety are difficult for kids to deal with. “Misbehaviour” and “acting out” in children is often an expression of their inability to deal with strong emotions appropriately. This behaviour may hide feelings such as guilt, hurt or embarrassment.
The physical manifestation of anger and anxiety in kids is also common. It is not unknown for kids to talk about headaches or stomach aches every morning when it’s time to go to school (but never over the weekend!).
Gottman’s studies on emotional intelligence have shown that kids taught about emotions are better able to adopt strategies to eliminate disturbing stimuli. For example, emotionally intelligent kids are more likely to know when to walk away from unpleasant situations, or the activities to engage in to calm their angry feelings.
Why emotional intelligence matters
There is evidence that children who are aware of their emotions and know how to express them in a socially acceptable manner perform better at school, have better social relationships, are more likely to consider that they are in control of what happens to them, and are less likely to display behaviour problems.
Emotionally intelligent kids are also more likely to be school-ready and happier than kids unable to manage their emotions.
The first step in teaching kids to manage strong emotions is to teach them about those emotions first. It is not about teaching them to suppress those emotions but, rather, to understand them and react to them appropriately. When we teach kids that while they might not be in control of the events that happen to them, they are in control of how they react, we help them develop their emotional intelligence.
Kids cannot appropriately express emotions if they are not taught about those emotions first. Although kids begin to be fully aware of their emotions and how to manage them from about age 10, emotional intelligence researchers suggest that they can be taught about emotions from as early as age 3. When we help put our kids’ emotions into words – “I can see you’re sad”, “I know you’re upset because you would have liked to continue watching your program” – we not only teach them to identify different emotions, we also help them put their feelings into words.
This post looks at the first phase of emotional intelligence – helping kids gain awareness and understanding of their emotions
Things to bear in mind
1) Talk often, but for short periods
It’s more effective to talk about emotions often but for short periods than to talk infrequently over long periods.
2) Picking the right moment matters
Don’t try to talk to your kid about emotions when he’s in the middle of a meltdown or when you’re tired or upset. The best time to talk to kids about emotions is when you’re both calm, relaxed and attentive.
3) Relate discussions about emotions to your child
It’s good to talk to kids about emotions. It’s better to relate the emotions to your kid’s specific case. For example, if you’re reading a book about anger, you could ask her what would make her as angry as the character in the book. You could also ask her if she has ever felt the same as that character and what she did. There are awesome resources to help if your child is struggling with anger.
If your child has difficulty expressing emotions, you can also encourage her to talk about them by asking her how a friend would feel if the same thing happened to him or her.
Using games to talk to kids about emotions
Playing memory games is a fun and easy way to talk to kids about emotions.
1) Obtain images representing different emotions. Printable brightly colored cards with animals depicting different emotions are available here. Print two sets of each card.
2) Cut out the images and shuffle them.
3) The first player selects a card and turns it over. He or she then selects a second card. If the two cards match, the player gets to select again.
4) To make the most of “feelings memory”, talk about emotions: Ask your child when he has felt like the emotion shown on the card, ask what makes him feel that way. Ask what he does when he feels that way.
FEELINGS SCAVENGER HUNT
A feelings scavenger hunt can help your child learn about different emotions.
1) Obtain images representing different emotions.
2) Cut out the images and hide them.
3) Make a list of all the emotions your kid needs to find
4) When he finds a card, ask him to name at least one thing that makes him feel like the emotion displayed.
THE EMOTIONS GAME
The “Emotions Game” is a great resource to encourage kids (from age 4) to talk about their emotions. It uses colorful pictures and simple phrases that help kids explore different emotions. This game is guaranteed to get your kid talking about emotions! You can check it out here.
If you’re looking for an extensive collection of resources to help you communicate with your child about emotions, check out The Emotions Kit. You’ll get age-appropriate worksheets, tools and games to help your child navigate difficult emotions.