Four Daily Ways to Teach Your Child About Emotions

With the school year back in full swing, children are in new schools and classrooms. They’re spending more time making friends and having new and different experiences.

As a parent, you want to ensure that your child is being compassionate and empathetic towards his newfound friends. However, according to research, children in preschool and kindergarten are still developing the cognitive skills to understand empathy.

In order for children to grasp the concept of “empathy” they must first be able to recognize their own emotions. Understanding what and why we are feeling this way will help children have the tools to talk about deeper concepts of feeling and emotion as they grow.

Here are four simple ways you can integrate learning about emotions into your day-to-day life:

Build the Word Bank

A simple way to start building your child’s word bank around feelings is to start with two very common words young children are familiar with: “good” and “bad.” Children are used to using one of these words to explain emotions, actions or even a friend’s personality: “My friend Matt was a bad boy at school today.”

Every time your child uses “good” or “bad” in a place where he could use a different, more descriptive word, offer him a few suggestions for what he may actually be describing.
“When you said Matt was a “bad” boy at school, why was that? Do you think he was sad, or maybe angry?” Coax him to explain the situation and help him identify the word he was looking for. As your child begins to absorb new emotion words, he will be better equipped to explain to you how he feels, and also to sense those same feelings in others.

Connect Actions to Feelings

To begin the process of learning how to explain feelings, it’s helpful for little ones to connect that actions cause us to have these feelings.

In the Teaching Moment video below, children in an Educare classroom are getting ready for a school play. The teacher is helping them identify that because they are about to go on stage, they may be feeling “nervous.” She is getting them used to the idea that actions cause feelings, which we all have.

This will help them adjust using their words to describe a situation like “when X happens, I feel Y.”

Act on Feelings

Give your child an easy-to-understand action she can do when she feels a specific emotion. This will give her an age-appropriate outlet to address her feelings, and get her used to the thought of dealing with an emotion. Having this outlet she can regularly use to act on her emotions will pave the way for dealing with more complicated feelings and situations as she ages.

For example, in the previous Teaching Moment video, the teacher offers children who are nervous for the upcoming play an outlet for their emotions. She asks each child to walk to the center of the circle where a large pot is sitting. One by one each child comes to the pot and shakes off their “nervous feelings” into the pot, where the nerves will stay for good. This is a way for the youngsters to see that everyone feels emotions like they do, and that there is a way to deal with them.

Use Specific, Open-Ended Questions

Start getting your child accustomed to talking about his emotions by asking about an exact moment. If your little one had just been in a play, instead of asking “did you like the play?” ask him how he felt before/during/after a specific moment: “how did you feel as you were about to say your lines?” or “what were you thinking after you got off of stage?”

For a child who can name his emotions well, begin bringing up questions that help him to identify what other people (friends, teacher, etc.) may have felt during that time so he can begin to pay attention to other people and their feelings. The more he learns about being attentive to his own emotions and others’, the more he will be able to understand that emotions are a daily part of life.