Kids don’t always know how to cope with their big emotions. Learn how to talk to your child about feelings with these 8 techniques.
You and I, we’ve had years of practice understanding our feelings. We can pinpoint when we feel excited over a present or jealous when we want something we can’t have. We know feelings come and go, and that everyone feels the same emotions at some point.
But kids aren’t born knowing this and don’t have the years of experience we’ve had to express feelings. They might assume they’re “bad” when they feel angry, or feel stuck not knowing that sad feelings do eventually go away.
They also might not pick up social cues: they don’t know to stop pestering the child who looks sad, or the one who doesn’t want to play right at this moment. Temper tantrums are common when they get upset, and they feel anxious when they don’t understand the sensations they’re going through.
Unfortunately, we don’t always treat feelings as important issues. To us, losing a lovey seems like no big deal, but to kids, it’s the same as losing a wedding ring. They feel the same sadness and guilt that you and I would if we lost something important.
How to talk to your child about feelings
That’s why we need to talk about specific feelings and make them a part of our everyday language. This will help your child understand why he feels the way he does. He can better manage his emotions when he knows exactly what they are when they happen. And he can relate to his peers and pick up on social cues.
Sure, he’ll eventually figure it out on his own, even without your guidance. But imagine how much better behaved and grounded he’ll feel when he understands emotions, right from the start. Let’s talk about how to do just that:
1. Reassure your child that everyone feels these emotions
Think about an experience you had where you wondered whether you were the only one this has ever happened to.
Struggling as a first-time, sleep-deprived newborn mom easily comes to mind. I didn’t think any of my friends or family could’ve felt what I was feeling. From sadness to frustration to wondering if my life would ever go back to normal, those first few months were brutal to get through.
Only later when I realized that yes, other moms do go through this as well, did I feel better.
The same is true for kids, and more so since they have fewer experiences and emotions under their belt. They worry they’re “bad” because they lied to get out of trouble, or wonder if they’ll always have terrifying tantrums that seem to happen all the time.
Relate to your child when you can, explaining how you and other people have felt similar emotions as well.
If she feels discouraged from falling off a scooter, share how everyone falls but gets back up again. Tell her that you’ve also made mistakes, and that you’ve felt worried when you face new problems you’re unfamiliar with.
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2. Don’t discourage difficult feelings
Think about the emotions we typically view as “negative”: unhappiness, anger, grumpiness, frustration, and so on. No one likes to feel these emotions, or be around others who do. It’s no wonder that, when our kids experience these feelings, we tend to respond accordingly.
We get impatient that they’re crying yet again, or that they’re still mad even after all this time. Deep down, we wish they would snap out of it. We even send them to time out, only allowing them to come out when they’re finally happy.
But we need to embrace all their feelings, not just the easy ones. We can’t offer affection for pleasant ones like pride, excitement, and happiness, only to withhold it when they feel angry or sad.
Instead, be there for your child without trying to rush him out of his feelings, even the hard ones. Send the message that you won’t abandon him when he needs you. As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“He needs your help during these challenging times. He’s scared he made you upset or feels guilty for spilling paint all over the floor. He needs guidance to calm himself down. And he wants to know he hasn’t done anything so egregious that he’s pushed you away.”
You might wonder if giving him attention will reward misbehavior. After all, aren’t we supposed to praise positive behavior and not fuel negative ones?
But compassion for him doesn’t mean condoning poor behavior. If you allow him to keep spilling paint all over the floor, then yes, you’re condoning it.
But hugging him, guiding him through a scuffle, or not sending him to time out doesn’t reward him. He won’t think, Gee, that hug from mom felt nice. I think I’ll yell and scream some more. Besides, he also gets attention when you yell or lose your temper. Which side of yourself would you rather he sees?
3. Don’t try to protect from difficult feelings
My son was excited about seeing an old friend from summer camp one year. Unfortunately, he didn’t see his friend the whole first week he was there. He was convinced his friend must not have been at camp because school was probably still in session for him.
Rather than try to prepare him for possible disappointment (“Remember, he might have gone to another camp this year”), I talked to him about how he felt.
We started labeling his feeling as “optimistic”—he was hopeful about the possibility of seeing his friend at camp again. Then, we talked about what “disappointment” feels like when reality doesn’t match with expectations.
We don’t need to protect kids from their feelings. They need to feel the whole range of emotions, from optimism and excitement to the possibility of disappointment.
They need to be able to struggle through these feelings without our efforts to save them from every discomfort. We can’t swoop in every time we sense they’re about to feel a difficult one. Use these moments as opportunities to help your child practice coping with challenging ones.
4. Describe the feeling as it’s happening
My twins were playing at the jungle gym when one of them accidentally stepped on another girl’s hand. He ran to me and clutched my leg, teary-eyed at what he had done.
I crouched down next to him and began to describe how he must have been feeling: “You feel sad that you hurt the little girl’s hand, don’t you? Are you worried you’re in trouble or that you did something wrong?”
I then continued to rub his back while describing the physical sensations he may have been experiencing: “Your body feels tight, doesn’t it? And it’s hard to breathe? Sometimes when we feel sad or scared, our bodies feel tight and we have a harder time breathing.”
The beauty of describing feelings as they’re happening is that kids get to put words to their experiences. You can definitely talk about it after the fact, but sometimes, kids need to know we understand how they feel right as they’re going through it.
5. Explain that feelings come and go
You and I know that feelings come and go. Just as we have good days, we’ll inevitably have bad ones, too.
Kids, however, don’t always understand this, and might assume they’re stuck in this state, or wonder when it’ll end. They’re so in-tuned to the present moment that imagining a better feeling can be hard for them.
That’s why it’s important to teach your child that feelings come and go. Remind him of another time when he got through a difficult emotion, and how he managed to bounce back up. While the future isn’t always predictable, you can talk about how he’ll eventually cycle out of difficult ones.
Focus on the relief he felt when something he was upset about turned out all right in the end. Reassure him that this difficult feeling will have its own sense of relief soon, too.
And here’s an infographic I created to show and help him understand different feelings:
6. Offer ways to cope with difficult feelings
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It’s fine to tell your child that feelings will come and go, but it’s even more helpful to give her coping methods in the meantime.
Thus far, we’ve talked about how to, well… talk about feelings. And while talking about it helps, teaching her coping methods provides her with practical ways to manage them.
You might give her options of what she can do when she starts to feel anxious. She might go to a separate room if she feels overwhelmed with a crowd, or bring a special lovey she can hold onto for comfort.
Giving her tools to cope with particular emotions helps her better deal with them (and avoid potential meltdowns).
7. Read children’s books about feelings
I’m a fan of reading books about developmental changes kids are going through, and the same is true with talking about feelings.
If they’re going through particular emotions, find books related to that topic. For instance, when one of my kids went through separation anxiety and had a hard time being away from me, I borrowed books about that topic.
When I noticed another having a difficult time expressing his feelings, we read books that showed different emotions. I like the books that show children’s expressions, as well as stories that share how the characters eventually coped.
8. Point out other people’s feelings
Kids are pretty tuned in to how others feel, even if they don’t have the emotional vocabulary for it.
Let’s say your child saw a little girl cry at a party because she didn’t want to go home just yet. Afraid to draw even more attention to the child, you might feel compelled to hurry yours along and avoid the scene. We’ve all been told “It’s rude to stare,” right?
But use this opportunity as a teachable moment. If you’re out of earshot, you might ask him what he thinks the little girl is feeling, or why she feels upset.
Even if you can’t discuss it right there, you can talk about it on the drive home or at a later time. Seizing “real life” moments to discuss emotions gives him a chance to understand his own feelings and how others feel them, too.
Describe your own feelings as well. If you lose your temper, apologize for getting angry, and how you’ll manage your temper moving forward. Talk about how you felt upset when you were stuck in traffic, or excited about an upcoming vacation.
If only kids were born knowing what feelings are, life would be so much easier. As it is, they learn about them as they grow and experience life, making it more important that we talk about them.
Talk about all feelings, and not just easy or pleasant ones. Avoid protecting your child from difficult emotions and instead allow him to experience—and learn from—them. Describe them as they occur, giving him a clearer understanding that they have names.
Reassure him that everyone feels similar feelings, and that he’s normal for experiencing them. Explain that they come and go, while giving him coping methods to get through them.
Read plenty of books to further cement the feelings he might have while also providing an opportunity to talk about them. And finally, point out how other people feel to help him develop empathy.
Perhaps the most important lesson to teach him is that feelings aren’t good or bad. They simple exist—from my son’s optimistic hope of seeing a friend at summer camp, to the joy (and relief) when he finally did.
Get more tips:
- How Teaching Kids about Emotions Reduces Misbehavior
- Little Ways You’re Actually Judging Your Child’s Emotions
- Why You Shouldn’t Dismiss Your Child’s Emotions
- 5 Tips to Handle a Clingy Toddler
- What to Do when Your Child Regresses Because of New Baby Jealousy
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