Three Steps to Help Children to Name and Express Emotions

Now is a time of feelings- for ALL of us. Not only is it a time of big feelings, but it is also a time of high and ranging emotions in one confined space while practicing social distancing. We are here for you as you navigate those feelings with your children or children you are caring for. In Art Feeds we often repeat the phrase, “all the feelings belong”, meaning that it is best for  children (and adults) to feel each feeling as it comes, rather than to push the feeling down and let it manifest in another way. Remember that feelings and emotions are like the newsroom for our insides- the help to bring internal information to the external. Permission to feel, name and decided what to do with that information is an important part of development. You don’t have to be an expert, the biggest part is to create space for your little one to feel their emotions and to listen to and acknowledge how they feel. Then together, you can decide what to do with that important information. We know the task of talking about feelings with children can be daunting, but we have some some strategies for it. 

#1 Differentiate Between the Performance of Feeling and the Emotion Itself

 It is helpful to process with your child the name of that emotion. 

My nephew Abram is nearly 5, he is a ball of energy and we jokingly say that he feels ALL is feelings at 110%, meaning that when he is happy, you can practically see the rays of sunshine shooting out of him, but when he’s sad or angry he is ALL in on crying and raging against his siblings. Since the time of social distancing, my sister shared with me that he had a very emotional day of meltdowns, tears and fight picking with his siblings. This is the performance of feeling. My sister gave him some space, cuddled him close and asked, “how are you feeling?” 

This is an important step because his melt downs, tears and picking of fights were the performance, but when he is asked about the emotion he feels, it gave him a moment to consider naming that feeling rather than the symptom of it. He said “I feel really sad”. 

#2 Do Not Try to Take the Emotion Away

It is difficult to be a parent or caretaker and see children we care so deeply about struggling or in any sort of pain. But it is important we give children space to name their feelings and the space to feel them (need help with naming feelings? Try our free Feelings Wheel printable). In times like this, it is common to slip into, “you should be happy- we have food on the table, a roof over our heads, we are with each other….(insert forced gratitude here)”. Another common strategy is to coax a child into “smiling” or “giggling” or changing the subject. Do not do this. It removes the opportunity for a child to feel their emotion in a healthy way. We must remember that in the short lives of children, the loss of seeing their friends and teachers daily, the cancellation of their soccer season or the inability to see family they love may be the deepest loss they have experienced so far in their lives. There is no measuring stick for grief or “wrong” emotion to feel, but there are healthy ways to express the feeling. Acknowledge how they are feeling with phrases like, “I can understand why you would feel that way” or “I can see that you feel sad” or “Gosh, that is hard.” The simple act of having another acknowledge that your feeling is valid makes us feel known, this is true for children too. 

#3 Once the Emotion is Named, Acknowledged and Safely Felt, Discuss a Strategy of Expression

In the case of my nephew, my sister asked, “can you think of why it is that you feel sad?”

Sometimes your child may be able to name the cause, and sometimes not. In Abe’s case, he shared, “I’m sad because I’m not getting enough hugs”. He explained that before social distancing, he received hugs from mom and dad in the morning, then from his Principal and teachers when he got from school, his friends on the playground, etc. He felt sad because of his lack of hugs. Whether or not your child can name the “why” of their emotions, you can discuss an avenue of expression. For my nephew some strategies could be to be more intentional about family hugs, to have a code word for needing more hugs, to consider some ways to share a “hug” with the friends, family and teachers he misses- perhaps with snail mail or an online message or photo. 

You can ask- “Next time  you feel this way, what can we do?”, to discuss a strategy of healthy expression for the future. This could be 5 minutes of quiet time, a dance party to express anger or sadness, writing in a journal, doing 20 jumping jacks or stepping out the back door and letting out a yell of release (that isn’t directed at another person). You know your child best, explore some things they like to do in order to make a plan for healthy expression next time those big emotions come up. Not to take them away- but to make space for feeling, naming, acknowledging and expressing. 

Our COO, Brooke, has a 3.5 year old. Last week she was feeling sad about not seeing her friends every day at daycare. They navigated those feelings together and when discussing what to do about it, her daughter June decided that making a restaurant (named “Walmart Birthday Restaurant”, naturally) would be the perfect remedy. Take a look at the process, and how that opportunity presented a creative way to feel our feelings and form a stronger bond while doing so:

Meg is our Founder and CEO. It was her vision that started Art Feeds in 2009 and her vision still carries us today. She walks between the administrative and creative duties of running Art Feeds, and she’s also the driver of the Van Gogh 2.0, our Mobile Art Center. When she’s not dreaming new dreams, you can find her travelling, beating your PR at the gym or discovering a secret concert by your favorite band.

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