• Karla Benzl MD

Talk about Feelings, Build Emotional Health

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Nowadays, there are myriad books and shows dedicated to teaching kids about emotions. Even LEGOS has designed a set describing basic emotions! I love that there are so many resources available. As a mental health provider, I believe that emotional intelligence (EQ) is just as important as learning numbers and letters. Having sound EQ does make school and life more manageable. No child is too young to learn about emotions. Here are 3 ways to get started:

1) Name them. Make sure you put a name to your child’s emotions. You can do this by naming the emotion your child is likely demonstrating. Simply having a feelings chart present in your home, and reviewing it with your child, can help. Refer to the feelings chart when your child is displaying any particular emotion to give them a visual.. Reading about emotions is another good way to put a name to feelings. As an example, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood has a board book series focusing on common feelings such as anger, happiness, and sadness. Reading about feelings helps normalize feelings and builds self-awareness. You can also help a child identify feelings in any book or movie by talking about/asking him/her what a particular character is feeling. Access a free emotions chart in English or Spanish on this site under "free printables."

2) Ask about them. Be sure to check-in with your child about her/his feelings routinely. This is as simple as asking how she/he currently feels in real time. You can also build self-reflection by asking how he/she felt during a particular situation. Little by little, your child will be able to identify that she/he felt sad, frustrated, happy, etc. I find that the beginning of the day and end of the day are nice times to check-in. For example, Sol y Luna Preschool has a magnetic white board divided into various feelings, and a picture of each child attached to a magnet. The child would then place their magnet next to their current feeling upon arriving at school.

3) Accept them. When your child shares an emotion, make sure to allow him/her space to feel it. For example, "it's ok to feel sad sometimes." All feelings, even the difficult or painful ones, deserve attention and can be tolerated. Many parents are tempted to immediately make their child feel better during painful feelings. Although the intentions are good, the implication is that certain feelings can’t be tolerated. Often times, feelings are there for a reason and can signify that something in life needs to change, or maybe something important was lost (i.e. grief). For a child, it may simply be that they are tired or overwhelmed. For adults, well, it could mean the same thing! Accepting your child’s feelings teaches them to be self-aware and nonjudgmental towards their emotional world.

Acceptance of the feeling does not mean that all feelings need to be acted on. For example, one can feel sad and not necessarily lay in bed all day. There is a difference between reacting to feelings and responding to them.

Reacting to feelings often means acting impulsively without much thought. Responding to a feeling means pausing and then deciding what course of action is necessary. Sometimes just being aware and doing nothing in response to a feeling is the answer. Other times, another action should be taken, such as having a conversation with a loved one, calling a friend, exercising to change a mood, changing jobs, getting out of a toxic relationship, etc.

What does this look in practice? Here are some examples of accepting your child's intense feelings:

Accepting an intense emotion: "I see that you are sad. It’s hard for you to see that butterfly fly away. (Pause) Would you like a hug? Would you like to draw a picture of the butterfly? (helping child identify coping skills is not necessarily distraction)

Not Accepting an intense emotion: “It's ok! Don’t cry! It's just a butterfly, here’s a toy.”
Another example:

Accepting an intense emotion:I see that you are angry- you didn’t get to watch the TV show you wanted. I understand. You can be mad, but you cannot kick, hit, or throw things. Let me help you calm down.Not accepting an intense emotion: "STOP being angry! Just calm down!" 

Note that the feelings are accepted, bad behavior is not, and the goal is to work towards coping with painful feelings. 

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