Children deal with a multitude of emotions on a daily basis. They get angry, sad, frustrated, nervous, happy or ashamed, just like adults do. The difference is that they often cannot find the words to express what they are feeling. Instead, they show it with some actions, which may not always be appropriate.
This is where biting, slapping, screaming, or even kicking out of anger or frustration arise. However, although complex for parents who are still learning to translate and interpret all this, these situations are also a learning opportunity for the little ones, who can understand how to identify and differentiate emotions, expressing feelings in new ways, and improve their emotional development.
Why is it important to teach children to talk about their feelings?
No child is born knowing how to express himself. It is the parents, the child’s first social group, who will teach him/her. This is what we call the verbal community. It is the verbal community, that is, parents, teachers, friends that will teach its members to use words to express these body states, such words being the names of feelings (anger, joy, anxiety, fear), among others.
It is through communication that we express our feelings and desires. The richer the child’s repertoire, the easier it will be to express its needs. Expressing feelings is an ability that needs to be learned. No child is born with this ability. A child who can say “I’m sad with you”, or “I’m angry” has a greater probability of resolving his conflicts, because he can clearly name what he is feeling.
Another important factor in teaching children to express their feelings is that children gain control of their emotions, and as they learn to deal with them, they also learn to deal with the emotions of others, thus developing feelings of empathy.
At what age can we start teaching children to express their feelings?
Emotional work with children must start very early, even when the child is a baby. Even if a baby cannot speak, he demonstrates his feelings through his behaviour. A baby’s crying can have several meanings. He may be hungry, cold or even angry.
Being aware of children’s behaviour can help parents learn more about how their child reacts to different situations. With time, parents are already able to differentiate a child’s crying, for example, if he is hungry, feeling cold or if he is sleepy.
How can parents teach children to express their feelings?
As the child grows and develops, parents will teach their little ones other ways to express their wishes and manage their emotions. Therefore, the first step to help your child deal with his feelings is to help him identify these emotions and try to understand – and make him understand too – why he is feeling this way. And this is a task that can already be done starting at 18 months of age, with some strategies that we will list below:
Use words or illustrations
Explain the feeling to your child using easy words that he can understand. Picture books are excellent allies in this task because they help children recognise other people’s emotions and facial expressions, an important component in later identifying emotions in themselves.
Help them find a solution
Teach your child different ways of dealing with feelings. Allow them to find solutions and explain whether those solutions are appropriate or unfeasible.
Teach your child how to deal with “negative” feelings
Nobody likes to be sad, angry, or afraid, do they? Often these feelings are seen as something bad and we should not feel them. Why is this? We have been taught that these feelings are something bad, or a sign that something is wrong with us. However, more than wanting to “pull out” these feelings, we must learn to deal with them in a more assertive way.
It is natural that parents want to protect their children as much as possible so that they don’t have to deal with some unpleasant feelings, however, it is necessary to understand that one day or another, the little ones will have to manage their own emotional issues.
It is always important to teach children to deal with their own feelings. Explain to them that it is not forbidden to feel, but they must be aware of the way they express what they are feeling. For example, it is natural for a child to feel anger, but hitting his/her classmate is not a good behaviour.
Something that is very important to teach children is that the “bad” feelings do not last forever. They come, but they pass. So, whenever possible, encourage your child to talk about his feelings, because the sooner he learns to express them, the easier he will find to deal with his emotional issues.
When you notice that your child is expressing themselves in an appropriate way, tell them so. When your child’s actions are valued and acknowledged, they are more likely to repeat the behaviour. This will encourage him and show him that it is OK to talk about his feelings.
One of the best ways to learn is through constant practice. So encourage your child to express emotions whenever possible. Even in the simplest moments of the day. Talk about your feelings when playing games, eating dinner, or riding in the car. The more children practice, the faster they will learn. A feelings board in the room can also help make the process more natural and recurring.
Accept your child’s feelings
Emotions can sometimes be very oppressive for children, but when you show that you accept them, they feel that you understand them. Therefore, support and acceptance are extremely necessary to encourage your child to express themselves appropriately, without fear of being repressed or condemned for it.
Be a role model for your child
To teach children how to manage their own feelings, parents also need to learn how to deal with their own. This does not mean that at some point parents cannot express or lose control when faced with a situation. When this happens, parents should explain to the child that they acted inappropriately and apologize.
Children, especially the youngest, learn a lot by observation. This means that they pay attention not only to what their parents say but also to what they do. Children pay attention to their parent’s behavior, which is why it’s important to teach them by example.
Empathetic listening is all about helping someone see that you understand exactly what they are going through or feeling. So stay 100% present in conversations and resist the natural urge to make your child’s uncomfortable feelings go away. Most of the time, your child just needs a chance to be heard while expressing themselves. Once they feel they have been heard and understood, they will let go and move on.
Overall, it takes practice and determination to help your child adopt the habit of expressing their feelings appropriately. Encourage them by being positive role model and remember to remain calm and empathetic throughout the process.
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