I have always been a very emotional person. I feel things very deeply and according to all my friends and family, I “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”
However, I’ve also always struggled with this aspect of my temperament. I am choosy about who I intentionally reveal my feelings to and have struggled with expressing (or not expressing!) negative emotions.
When my son was born, I vowed to learn more about how to help him learn about feelings and their healthy expression, and in the process I’ve learned a lot too – and the learning curve has been STEEP!
This post is a collection of some of the best ideas and research that I have found for raising emotionally healthy kids.
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The Value of Feelings
Feelings are what make us feel fully ALIVE and CONNECTED to others and the world.
When we teach our kids to understand and express their emotions in healthy ways, it allows them to experience a more flexible, adaptive and stable inner life. It also puts them on the road to becoming more RESILIENT to mental illness.
(Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation).
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s not helpful to think of feelings as being good or bad. They just ARE.
The more we can teach our kids to be in touch with them, accept them, understand them and then express them – the healthier they will be!
Tips for Teaching Kids to Understand Feelings
1. Accept, Validate and EMPATHIZE With THEIR Feelings
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
When we empathize with our kids, we are validating their feelings. In essence, we are communicating to them that it’s OKAY to have negative feelings and to express them.
If instead we ignore the feelings, don’t talk about them, dismiss them, minimize them, or get angry at the child, they will come to learn that feelings are best ignored and suppressed.
Need some examples?
- Dismissing our child’s feelings: “Don’t be so sensitive.”
- Minimizing them: “Oh, you’re not really upset are you? It’s not a big deal.”
- Getting angry or irritated with them for expressing feelings: “Stop crying! That’s enough!”
A child who believes that expressing negative feelings is unacceptable will never be able to understand when someone else is expressing these feelings. Nor will they be able to, or want to, act to comfort them – the crux of empathy.
According to Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting: Parenting Through Connection Instead of Coercion, Through Love Instead of Fear the secret to empathizing with our kids is simply to acknowledge and accept their feelings – as soon as they appear.
- “You seem really upset/frustrated/angry/scared.”
- “I’m here for you. It’s going to be okay.”
- “I can see you’re really sad and disappointed about that. Those are really big feelings.”
- “It’s okay to cry.”
Make It OKAY for Your Child to Express ALL Emotions – especially the negative ones!
Over at the Positive Parenting Connections blog, Nicole Schwarz has written an awesome post for parents experiencing confusion or stress when trying to empathize with their kids. This used to be me. If this is you, be sure to check it out here.
You might also want to read more about Parenting Triggers if seeing and hearing your child upset makes you angry.
2. Help Your Kids Recognize The RANGE of Feelings
When children are little, it’s easiest to first focus on teaching them to recognize the basic emotions of anger, sadness, fear, happiness, disgust, and surprise.
As they grow – start using a variety of complex emotion words when you are talking about feelings. Discussing their meanings and nuances can help kids learn to distinguish them.
- Describe your own feelings “I’m really sad that Grandma is leaving.” “I feel so happy when you give me a big hug!” “I’m really disappointed that this room is such a mess!”
- Describe your child’s feelings “You look really sad that your friend has to go.” “Did that loud noise scare you?” “I can see that dancing makes you feel really peaceful and calm.”
Check out this amazing emotions wheel for ideas!
3. Help Your Kids LABEL Feelings in THEMSELVES
One of the easiest ways you can help kids learn about their own feelings is by labeling their feelings for them.
- “You look really SCARED right now! Was that noise too loud?”
- “You looked really ANGRY when your brother took your car from you.”
- “You always look so HAPPY when you are painting.”
- “It can be really FRUSTRATING when things don’t go as you want them to.”
After I learned this tip, I started doing it a lot with my son. By the age of 3, Onetime was very good at labelling his OWN feelings, and at letting me know if I had gotten them wrong!
One of the side benefits of teaching our kids to label their feelings, is that the process of putting a name to an uncomfortable feeling (sadness, fear, anger, jealousy etc.) actually helps physically reduce the discomfort of the feeling! (See Science Daily to read more.)
Dan Siegel refers to this strategy as “Name it to Tame it” in his wonderful parenting book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.
You may also want to check out this free Feelings Game and Feelings Sheet which you can use to help your kids learn to identify their own feelings.
4. Help Your Kids Recognize Feelings in OTHERS
You can help your child develop emotional recognition skills and empathy every day with a few simple strategies.
When reading stories together, talk about how the different characters might be feeling at different points in the story. “How do you think Tomie was feeling when his teacher told him he couldn’t use his favourite crayons in art class?”
Out and About:
Discreetly notice when other children or adults are visibly experiencing strong emotions, and quietly point them out to your child. “That baby must be feeling really upset right now to be crying so loudly!”
“I’ll make a face and you copy it!” “I’ll make a face and you tell me how you think I’m feeling.”
When kids are in conflict with each other, draw their attention to how the other child is feeling.
“How do you think Joey was feeling when you grabbed the toy away from him? How would you feel if that happened to you?” “What could you do to help him feel better?” “What can he do to help you feel better?”
5. Talk About the PURPOSE of Feelings
It can be helpful to talk with children about the reasons why we feel certain ways.
These kinds of mindful discussions can help kids learn to become aware of their feelings without allowing themselves to be swept away with the feeling. (see Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight)
Don’t try to have these discussions during, or soon after, a strong negative emotion has occurred. Instead pick a neutral time to casually bring these ideas up – maybe when you’re reading a book together, or noticing someone else’s emotional behaviour.
Feelings evolved for the purpose of driving us to behave in ways that PROTECT us.
Purposes of Basic Feelings:
If we look at the 6 basic emotions that are present in humans from infancy, we can see why these emotions are common to all cultures.
Allows us to connect and share and bond. Laughter allows us to release tensions and stresses.
Happiness may also allow our brains relax so that we can become open to a broader awareness of things – which in turn, allows us to learn and problem-solve more effectively.
Tells our bodies to slow down and reflect. It helps us process the deep meaning of events and relationships. It allows us to let go of things we have lost.
Tears actually help our bodies release the stress-hormone cortisol, and stimulate the production of endorphins which make us feel better! That’s why a good cry often makes us feel better!
Fuels our body to fight and stick up for ourselves when we are being challenged by another person or people.
It may give us a needed burst of strength to defend ourselves, or to attack. It may even allow us to bargain more effectively with others!
Allows us to stop what we’re doing and focus when something new or important occurs.
If the surprising event is negative, it pumps us full of adrenaline so that we can either escape or fight.
Prevents us from engaging in activities which are usually unhealthy for us.
Research shows that disgust helps us avoid eating things that are toxic, and likely to be contaminated with germs. Sounds like a healthy feeling to me!
Acts as a danger signal. It lets us know when there is a real or possible threat to our persons or our self-esteem.
It also triggers adaptive responses to help deal with these threats, such as anger, or the fight-or-flight response. Fear even warns us when our personal boundaries have been crossed, as well as our emotional boundaries.
6. Encourage the HEALTHY Expression of Difficult Feelings
When we share our happiness, it becomes contagious.
When we share our sadness, we can receive much-needed comfort.
However, when we share our anger – especially if we have suppressed it for too long – we often get hostile responses from others.
Usually this is because we have not expressed the true feeling underneath the anger (usually a hurt of some kind).
If we can teach our kids to express the hurts when they feel them, in appropriate and assertive ways, before the anger bubbles out of control, we are giving them a proactive tool that will allow them to communicate better with others their entire lives.
One of the best strategies to teach kids to use is the “I-statement.”
When they are upset, disappointed, or hurt – prompt them to use their words to express it as soon as possible.
“I feel… (State your emotion) when you….(describe their behaviour or under what conditions you feel this way) because I want/I need… (explain why their behaviour or the conditions leads you to feel this way).
- “I felt really sad when you called me a baby because I need respect.”
- “I feel sad when you don’t say Hi to me at school because I want us to be friends at home and at school.”
- “I feel angry when I don’t get to play the video game too because I need to have fun as well.”
For more examples of I-statements, visit this site.
Cruising Towards Mellow: A Roadmap for Comforting Your Upset Child, How to Listen Effectively So Your Kids Will Talk
7. Discuss & Share Emotions in Your Family
Talking and sharing feelings with one another is a characteristic of resilient families. (“Reaching In, Reaching Out,” Resilience training.)
Talking about feelings helps connect us and bond us together. When we are sensitive to our child’s feelings, and show them that we understand what they are experiencing – we become “attuned.”
Research has shown that this type of attunement between parents and their children often creates relationships where children are securely attached. (Dan Siegel, Parenting from the Inside Out)
Securely attached children are typically happier and more socially skilled, competent, compliant, and empathetic than children who were insecurely attached as infants. They may also be more popular with their peers, have higher self-esteem, and be less dependent and negative.
(See Education.com to read more about this research.)
Find a huge list of games, activities and books that you can read with kids to help develop emotional intelligence at: Best Parent Resources to Teach Kids About Feelings.
8. Teach About the Connection Between Feelings & Thoughts
Teach your kids that although they cannot control how they feel, they CAN control what they think.
Teach them how thinking certain thoughts can lead them to feeling certain ways, and how viewing things in a different way, can lead to them to feel more positive.
Research has shown that resilient people tend to think in these three ways:
- they take ownership for mistakes they have made and don’t blame others
- they don’t ruminate on problems they have little control over
- they focus their energy into problem-solving for things they CAN control and change
When your child is upset, you can encourage them to try and “Catch Their Thoughts” – or pause before reacting – and ask themselves “Is my thinking accurate? Is there another way to think about this? “What am I saying to myself?”
Read 30+ Phrases to Say to Kids to Boost Their Resilience to find examples of things you can say to your kids to model and encourage these types of positive and resilient thinking.
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That brings us to the end of my tips for teaching kids to value and accept feelings.
As parents and educators, we are in a unique position to be able to model and encourage emotional health and resilience. I hope you have found some helpful ideas here today!
Today’s post was the V is for Valuing Feelings installment of my alphabetic parenting series. Find all of the other posts on the Positive Parenting page.
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I love hearing your thoughts and ideas! How do you teach your kids about feelings? Leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best in your parenting journey,
Nice article that point few issues with the way we inhibit our kids emotional development.
Still I’m in disagreement with you as I believe that we are not responsible for the emotional state of others.
eg. “What could you do to help him feel better?”
Our emotions are triggered by external happenings but the source is our image about the world.
Also I put blame on the other and trigger guilt (which is manipulative) and responsibility for my feeling in the other if I tell them: “I felt really hurt when you called me a baby because that’s a put-down.”
I would recommend you to read “Non violent Communication” by Marshal Rosenberg to get a full understanding of what I’m stating here.
Sue Lively says
Hi Mircea – thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I also agree that we are not responsible for the emotional state of others. I try to help my son understand that when he says things like, “You made me so mad!” – I’ll often empathize that he’s angry and then remind him that only HE controls how he feels. I can see why you might think that that phrase might encourage that though. I do want my son to think about how his actions affect others though too. You have brought up a really interesting point about using I-Statements. I never thought about them in that way before and I will definitely check out the book Non-Violent Communication – thanks so much for the reference – I’m always looking to find new ideas of communicating positively. I do think it’s important for kids to stand up for themselves though and to speak up when someone is being hurtful. It’s important for others to know when their actions are impacting us – and healthy to express our feelings about it. If we don’t let others know how their actions are affecting us – how can they possibly change? I look forward to the book you’ve mentioned to perhaps learn some alternative ways! Thanks again and best, Sue
Sue Lively says
I wanted readers to know that I followed up on this book recommendation and read Non Violent Communication this summer. It is an excellent book that I highly recommend reading. I have updated some of the advice in this post to reflect a more positive way of teaching our kids to speak!