Struggling with getting your kids to listen? Learn why teaching about emotions reduces misbehavior, and how to apply this in your daily life.
My then-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 was not my favorite part of the day.
On one 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 feelings reduces misbehavior
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I first learned the importance of talking about and labeling emotions with kids in The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. By talking about these feelings they have, we make it more likely for them to behave in appropriate ways than if they had no way to talk about them.
Not all of us grew up with parents who openly talked about and welcomed conversations around feelings. I wanted to change that with my own kids so that they knew they could always bring up what’s on their minds.
Most importantly, talking about their feelings gave them a different way of responding when things didn’t feel right. Rather than throwing a fit, they were better able to grasp how they felt and communicate it. Take a look at these other amazing benefits of teaching kids about emotions:
1. Kids learn an alternative to outbursts
That day when my son told me I made him mad was proof how effective teaching feelings 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 these emotions. He was able to tie his current feeling 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 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.
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2. 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 heartbeat, clenching of the jaws, or tummy aches. Add to that the unfamiliarity of these emotions. They 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 talking to them about their emotions reassures them of their worries. That this is normal and will go away and that everyone goes through difficult feelings.
3. 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 they throw tantrums and outbursts, they’re in full right brain mode. They’re not using logic, even if we tell 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. They’re most balanced when they’re using both left brain logic and right brain emotion. Once they’ve 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.
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 they grow up, we want them to be able to manage these difficult emotions on their own.
They learn coping mechanisms to do just that. Let’s say your child identifies and understands that she feels sad. As difficult as it is, she knows she’s not alone, that she’s loved, and that it’ll pass. She may even tell others that she feels sad.
And now, she can do something about it.
She might grab her favorite stuffed animal to make her feel better. She can walk away from her brother who had grabbed all the toy cars. Or she can also nibble on her lovey, or run to her mom for comfort.
These are all admirable ways to cope with a frustrating feeling, and she’s only able to do so because she understands what sadness is.
Best practices for teaching feelings
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 her emotions. From mad to sad to anxious and worried, talk about emotions openly and as she’s 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 she’s going through an outburst, save your words until after she has calmed down. Remember left brain/right brain? She’s in full right brain mode at that point and won’t even process anything you say. Wait until she’s calm and can listen.
- Reassure her that these feelings are normal. Each time she experiences a difficult emotion, reassure her that it’s normal. Let her know that everyone feels them, even you. That they’ll go away soon, and that you still love her no matter what.
- Praise her for telling you how she feels. It’s a huge developmental leap for a child to be able to identify how she feels. When your child does, praise and thank her for doing so. Let her know she can talk about feelings, no matter what they may be. This can encourage her to continue identifying and labeling her emotions.
- Offer ways to cope. Here’s where you can show her what to do when she feels a difficult emotion strike. She can go to her room for quiet time if a large crowd starts to feel overwhelming, or let you know she needs help. She might take a deep breath, or walk away.
- Describe how you’re feeling. Modeling behavior is the best way to show her 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 her how to behave and reinforces the idea that everyone feels emotions.
No doubt, our kids will have tantrums and outbursts. 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 him for saying you made him sad.
Get more tips:
- 3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Ignore Your Child’s Emotions
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- 5 Easy Tips for Kids to Learn Empathy
- How to Stop Kids from Talking Back to You
- What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Apologize
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