Struggling with getting your child to listen? Learn how teaching kids about emotions reduces misbehavior, and how you can apply this in your daily life.
My three-year-old told me I made him sad, and I couldn’t be prouder.
Let me back up.
Picking up three kids from two schools in the afternoons is not my favorite part of the day.
On one recent trip, I was buckling them in the van with all three telling me different stories at the same time. I was trying to listen to my eldest, who was first to talk, but his brothers kept interrupting.
“You have to wait your turn to talk,” I told both of them. “I’m trying to buckle you all in, and listen to your brother talking. Tell me later.”
In previous times, my little guy would’ve erupted in tears, or worse, a tantrum. But that day, with his lip quivering, he blurted, “You made me sad.”
How teaching kids about emotions reduces misbehavior
I first learned the importance of talking about emotions with kids, particularly labeling them, in The Whole Brain Child (affiliate link) by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. And since then, I saw the results and was hooked.
Here are four benefits of teaching kids about emotions:
1. Kids feel reassured
You and I know the feelings we get when they strike. We can pinpoint whether we’re excited, anxious, angry or sad. We also know these feelings happen to everyone and that they’ll pass. And no matter how unpleasant some of them may be, we also understand they’re inevitable.
But feelings are completely overwhelming to kids. What seems obvious to us isn’t as clear to them. They wonder whether something’s wrong with them when these difficult feelings occur. They even worry if their parents will stop loving them.
The feeling itself also doesn’t feel good. They usually come with a fast heart beat, clenching of the jaws, or tummy aches. Add to that the unfamiliarity of these emotions. Kids don’t know what’s happening to them and wonder if they’re strange or different.
And they don’t know if these feelings will go away. Like an ailment, they’re not sure if this is a one-time thing or a terrible feeling they’re stuck with.
But labeling emotions reassures them of their worries. That this is normal and will go away and that everyone goes through difficult feelings.
2. Kids feel an order to the chaos
One of the chapters in The Whole Brain Child is called “Name It to Tame It.” Have you heard of “left brain/right brain”? Kids tend to start off using the right side of the brain. Think emotion, body language, facial expression and “being in the moment.”
When kids throw tantrums and outbursts, they’re in full right brain mode. They’re not using logic, even if we told them why they don’t have to cry. Their brains are going haywire from the chaos they feel.
One of the best ways to restore that chaos is to label their emotions. Kids are most balanced when they’re using both left brain logic and right brain emotion.
Once kids have calmed down enough to listen, we can then discuss the emotions they just felt. The act of putting a name to an emotion draws on their left brains.
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3. Kids learn an alternative to outbursts
That day when my son told me I made him mad was proof how effective teaching kids about emotions can be.
Rather than resorting to outbursts or more tears, he was able to tell me how he felt. And the only way he was able to articulate that was because I’d been labeling emotions. He was able to tie his current emotions with similar ones in the past and knew exactly what he was going through.
This applies to many difficult emotions. The child who’s upset and about to push his little sister could instead say, “I’m mad!” The one who feels groggy at the end of the day can say, “I’m tired.”
And even the kids who saw a scary scene in a cartoon can say, “That scares me!” in time for mom to stop the show.
Kids throw tantrums when they don’t have the words to describe what’s bothering them. Labeling emotions gives them one more tool to use so they don’t have to resort to an outburst.
4. The ability to cope with emotions
Knowing and identifying emotions is just one part. Now, kids can also learn different ways to cope with the more difficult ones. After all, isn’t that our ultimate goal? As kids grow up, we want them to be able to manage these difficult emotions on their own.
And so they learn coping mechanisms to do just that. Let’s say a child identifies and understands that he feels sad. As difficult as it is, he knows he’s not alone, that he’s loved and that it’ll pass. He may even tell others that he feels sad.
And now, he can do something about it.
He might grab his favorite stuffed animal to make him feel better. Walk away from his brother who had grabbed all the toy cars. Suck his thumb or run to his mom for comfort.
These are all admirable ways to cope with a frustrating feeling, and he’s only able to do so because he understands what sadness is.
Best practices for teaching kids about emotions
Now that we know the importance of labeling emotions, how can we apply this to everyday life?
- Describe your child’s emotions. Make a note to identify and describe your child’s emotions. From mad to sad to anxious and worried, talk about emotions openly and as they’re experiencing it. And don’t limit it to difficult emotions, either. Talk about feeling excited for a party or happy to play at the park.
- Don’t talk until after an outburst. If your child is going through an outburst, save your words until after he has calmed down. Remember left brain/right brain? He’s in full right brain mode at that point and won’t even process anything you say. Wait until he’s calm and can listen.
- Reassure your child that these feelings are normal. Each time your child experiences a difficult emotion, reassure him that it’s normal. Let him know that everyone feels them, even you. That they will go away soon, and that you still love him no matter what.
- Praise your child for telling you how he feels. It’s a huge developmental leap for a child to be able to identify how he feels. When your child does, praise and thank him for doing so. Let him know he can talk about feelings, no matter what they may be. This can encourage him to continue identifying and labeling his emotions.
- Offer ways to cope. Here’s where you can show your child what to do when he feels a difficult emotion strike. He might go to his room for quiet time if a large crowd starts to feel overwhelming. He could come to you and let you know he needs help. Or he might take a deep breath as I’ve seen my three-year-old do, or walk away.
- Describe how you’re feeling. Modeling behavior is the best way to show our kids how to behave. Describe any emotions you might be feeling, both good and bad. You might say you feel excited to have ice cream after dinner, or you could explain you feel worried about work. This shows your child how to behave and reinforces the idea that everyone feels emotions.
No doubt our kids will still have tantrums. Even big kids will still cry and get frustrated (heck, even adults need a good cry sometimes).
But when your days feel like one tantrum after another, practice labeling emotions. Get into the habit of naming feelings you or your child experience. You might find that this simple act can reduce the number of outbursts he feels.
Who knows—you just might feel proud of your child for saying you made him sad.
Get more tips:
- One Effective Word to Get Kids to Listen
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- 5 Easy Tips for Kids to Learn Empathy
- How to Stop Kids from Talking Back to You
- Why You Shouldn’t Force Kids to Say Sorry
Tell me in the comments: When have you labeled your child’s emotions, and how has it helped with his or her behavior?
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