Why Feelings Matter
As a child, I sometimes felt that if I expressed a “negative” emotion, I would seem ungrateful or be thought of as a complainer. As I grew older, I strived to be positive and upbeat, often minimizing my more difficult emotions. The problem is, you can’t push difficult emotions aside and ignore them. They fester, building up resentment and discomfort in your mind and body.
Children are often taught to “look on the bright side” or “cheer up.” While those speaking these words usually have good intentions, the message children often receive is: “I am not supposed to show or talk about my true feelings. I should be ashamed of crying, showing anger, or being too expressive.”
It is crucial we teach children, from a very early age, to recognize, process and express their feelings. This not only allows children to feel safe, valued, and heard, but also raises them to be authentic and empathetic adults.
How to Teach Recognition of Feelings to Young Children
First, parents must explicitly teach their children about each emotion. After that, children must do the work themselves of recognizing these emotions. A study concluded that when parents read a picture book to their toddler children and asked their children to label the feelings of the characters, these children became more helpful to others and shared more.
Research shows, direct discussions about emotions explicitly teach children ways of understanding and managing emotional experiences. Even more, homes with expressive families raise children who better understand that it is acceptable to show one’s feelings.
Children Learn Through Observing and Imitating
While we must teach children to recognize emotions from an early age, we also must model for children how we handle our own emotions in a healthy way.
Many years ago, I was babysitting a child who watched the movie “Kung Fu Panda.” After the movie ended, the boy started fiercely doing high kicks and karate chopping. It occured to me he had seen the main character of the movie as a model for behavior, and he was now imitating exactly what he’d seen. I never forgot that, because I learned the importance of providing children with healthy models for behavior.
If we suppress our emotions, or blow up in a rage, our children watch us and believe this too is how they should behave. When we model taking quiet time for ourselves to cool down, processing our own emotions, and then sharing them safely, we teach children to do the same. We can show them that we too cry or experience anger, and that these expressions are healthy ways of communicating and fully feeling our life experiences.
Accept All Types of Feelings
There are no “bad” feelings. Anger or fear are not bad or negative. In fact, they can teach us something, like what we are afraid of or things that make us feel uncomfortable. Maybe we are in a dangerous situation or feel we have not been treated fairly. By feeling anger and fear, we often learn that we need to take action or protect ourselves or someone else. If we teach children to hide these emotions, we might be teaching them to ignore warning signs of unsafe situations, when they need us the most.
Research shows, when parents react rigidly to their child expressing emotions, the child often becomes self-conscious when managing emotions. Instead, we need to encourage children to express their feelings and show them we are open and supportive when they do so.
A study found that mothers and fathers were more accepting of anger expression in boys versus girls. They were also more accepting of fear in girls versus boys. If we only accept when boys feel anger and girls feel fear, we are teaching children to suppress their true emotions and hide from us how they authentically feel. These habits continue into adulthood, creating adults who are out of touch with their own emotions. This can be damaging in adult relationships, because relationships function best when partners are communicative and honest.
How to Self-Regulate
We can help children brainstorm what makes them feel better when they experience strong emotions. This helps them build self-regulation skills. Ideas include:
- Running in place
- Squeezing a stress ball
- Holding a stuffed animal
- Wrapping up in a blanket
- Taking a walk
- Screaming into a pillow
- Listening to music
- Deep breathing
- Receiving a hug
How to Process or Share a Feeling
We can explicitly teach children how to process and share their feelings. Ideas include:
- Talking with someone you trust
- Writing about your feelings in a journal
- Drawing your feelings
Establish a Family Culture of Sharing Feelings
Children thrive when they know they are safe to express their feelings. Children are new to this world, and managing their many emotions can feel overwhelming. When we guide them by modeling and explicitly teaching self-regulation skills, children learn how to navigate their feelings in a healthy way. These tools will serve them the rest of their lives!
Check Out Our Feelings Freebie!
To learn more about how to help children manage strong emotions, check out our Feelings Freebie! You’ll find more research on this topic and hands-on activities to help your child learn skills to process and regulate feelings.
Brownell, Celia A, et al. “Socialization of Early Prosocial Behavior: Parents’ Talk about Emotions Is Associated with Sharing and Helping in Toddlers.” Infancy : the Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3524590/.
Suveg, Cynthia, et al. “‘I’d Rather Not Talk about It’: Emotion Parenting in Families of Children with an Anxiety Disorder.” Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2610353/#R11.