It’s hard enough to identify, understand and cope with our emotions as adults. It takes practice. And often we get it wrong. That is, we can’t figure out what we’re really feeling. We ignore our feelings or pretend they don’t exist. Or we turn to unhealthy habits.
So it’s understandable that kids find feelings so confusing and overwhelming — so much so they have meltdowns and tantrums. They kick. They scream. They sob. They stomp their feet.
Fortunately, parents can help. You can help your child tune into what they’re actually feeling and find healthy ways to cope with those feelings. It’s a skill that all kids need and benefit from greatly (as do parents!).
Kids experience a variety of emotions in a given day, writes child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley, LCSW, in her insightful book The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. They might feel exhausted, elated, anxious, angry and sad.
In The Happy Kid Handbook Hurley encourages parents to teach their kids emotional regulation. She stresses that this isn’t about stuffing down your feelings. This is neither helpful for kids nor adults because, of course, what resists persists. That is, when kids stuff down their emotions, they internalize them, which leads them to explode, she writes.
“Emotional regulation is about teaching kids to understand what triggers those very big feelings and what they can do in the moment to work through them without projecting them onto others,” according to Hurley.
When teaching your kids how to navigate emotions healthfully, it’s critical to communicate that all feelings are helpful, even the ones that cause us to be uncomfortable. (Again, that’s something we, as adults, can benefit from remembering, too.)
Hurley features a handful of helpful emotion-focused exercises for parents to do with their kids. Here are three great strategies from her book.
Create a feelings chart.
Kids can have a really hard time with identifying emotions. To help, Hurley suggests kids and parents practice making different faces that convey different feelings. “Be sure to point out how different parts of the face appear when experiencing different emotions (e.g., ‘down eyes’ = angry).”
Talk about what it means to experience different emotions. For instance, what does it mean to be sad, surprised and happy?
Once your child has a good understanding, take several pictures of them making these faces. Print out the photos, and paste them onto a poster board, along with the specific feelings written below the photos. Or you can use images of your child’s favorite cards, animals or toys.
Ask your child to return to the chart throughout the day. Once your child is able to identify their emotions using the chart, talk to them about what to do with those emotions.
Play with buckets and beanbags.
Kids also have a hard time understanding what causes their feelings. Hurley suggests creating “feeling buckets” to talk about how different actions and scenarios trigger different feelings.
Gather five to seven white buckets and several beanbags. You can make the beanbags with Ziploc bags and dried beans. Label the buckets with the feelings your child often experiences. For instance, you can start with: happy, sad, scared and angry.
Ask your child to stand behind a line with their beanbags. Describe a scenario that your child might encounter. Hurley shares this example: Sarah forgot to bring her homework, and she doesn’t want to go to class. How is she feeling?
Ask your child to throw a beanbag into the bucket that best describes the situation. Then talk about possible solutions. For instance, Sarah might talk to her teacher outside about forgetting her homework.
Create a “check-in board.”
Kids don’t always (ever?) want to talk about how their day went. According to Hurley, having a check-in board for the whole family eases your kids into talking about how they’re doing.
To create one, use poster board. Create “pockets” on the board using construction paper. Paste a picture of a feeling on each pocket. Use a Popsicle stick to represent each family member. You can write their name on the stick, include their favorite color or include their picture. Put all the sticks in a blank pocket at the bottom of your board.
At the beginning and the end of every day, ask each person to put their Popsicle stick in the pocket that matches how they’re feeling.
“This kind of strategy encourages kids to think about how they actually felt during the day, instead of simply listing the events that occurred while at school,” Hurley writes.
There are many creative ways to teach your kids to identify and process their emotions. Use Hurley’s wise suggestions, or create your own strategies. Either way, teaching your kids to regulate their emotions is key for their emotional and physical well-being. It stops them from being at the mercy of their varying moods. It empowers your kids, and teaches them important insights and habits they’ll take well into adulthood.
As Hurley writes, “When kids learn that they can choose adaptive coping strategies to confront intrusive thoughts and emotional triggers, they free up space to focus, interact in a positive manner, and resolve conflict independently.”
And those are all things we can benefit from as adults.
Unhappy child photo available from Shutterstock