Every child deserves to feel heard and understood. We all struggle with finding the right words to explain ourselves from time to time, but for many children, especially those who struggle socially and emotionally, expressing emotions can be a huge challenge.
When kids can’t find the words to express how they feel, they have no choice but to use behaviors. For younger children, this can look like tantrums, throwing things, or crying fits. For older kids, lack of emotional awareness or ability to express their feelings can result in high risk behaviors, such as self-injury, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, or angry and aggressive outbursts.
The good news is there are tons of ways to help children of all ages learn how to identify how they feel and express it in a positive and healthy way. Over the past 10 years much of my work has been focused on this very thing and I’ve watched children shift from anxious and angry kids who use behaviors to express themselves, to healthy, strong young adults who can communicate their feelings and use a variety of strategies to manage them. Depending on a child’s stage, there are a wide variety of strategies to help them identify their feelings and express them to a trusted adult.
While there are countless strategies to teach kids how to identify and express their feelings, here are a few of my favorites.
Emotion faces. I use emotion face worksheets with almost all of my clients when we first start out. Depending on a child’s age and developmental stage, the number or complexity of the emotions to choose from will vary. However, in all cases, I encourage my clients to circle (or color) the feeling faces that they are either experiencing at the moment or have experienced within the past week. After kids master the skill of identifying how they feel, I then coach them in practicing “I feel” statements for each emotion they identify. The emotion faces can go from very simple like here to more complex, such as this. These worksheets are easy to find online or can also be made to tailor each child. They are easily used during therapy, at home, and at school.
Emotion thermometers- Once a child is able to identify how they feel, a next step is to help them understand that they can feel an emotion in a variety of intensities. I’ve worked with a lot of children who use the term angry to describe just about every negative emotion. Helping them expand their vocabulary helps others be able to better understand their emotional experience, resulting in the child feeling better heard and understood. There are many different ways to do this, but the coolest way I’ve seen so far is using paint chip samples. Check out this version on pinterest, here.
Emotion charades- Who doesn’t love a little family (friends) game night? Teaching your children how to identify emotions in themselves and others doesn’t have to be all formal- it can be fun! Brainstorm a list of common emotions your child understands the definition to, put them in a hat, and take turns acting them out. This can be done with a larger group of kids in a group or a class for prizes or as an ice breaker activity. In years past I’ve taught clients and staff members in residential programs about how difficult it can be to both express your emotion in a way that others can understand AND accurately read the emotion on someone else. This opens the door to conversations about non-verbal cues, reflective listening, and healthy communication.
No matter what techniques you use, teaching a child to understand his or her emotions is a crucial to helping them build positive relationships and develop self-esteem. For kids that need a little extra help learning this skills, therapy can be a great way to provide them with many teachable moments in a safe and supportive setting.