Feelings First: A Guide To Helping Kids Identify And Express Their Emotions

Sometimes as adults, we take for granted that our brains have fully developed and we have the vocabulary to identify and communicate our feelings and how we’re feeling in (almost) any given moment. We say things like:

“I’m so happy you decided to come!”

“It hurts when you keep looking at your phone while I am trying to talk to you.”

“It frustrates me when people don’t reply to my emails.”

But what might come naturally to us doesn’t come naturally to our kids. They don’t know the name of the emotion they’re feeling or why, much less how to communicate it to an adult. When our kids are at a loss and don’t feel understood, an outburst of exasperation or anger may be their default. The good news is, you can help your child learn how to identify and express their feelings in a healthy way. Here’s how.

How to help your child “name the feeling”

Janine Halloran, a licensed Licensed Mental Health Counselor from Massachusetts says that the first step to helping your child cope with and express their emotions is teaching them what sadness, happiness, etc. even is. She says then you can help them learn how to identify the emotions they’re feeling by:

  1. Reading books about feelings
  2. Talking about how characters on TV shows are feeling (Shows like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” can be a helpful starting point.)
  3. Expressing how you’re feeling/being honest with your kids about your won emotions
  4. Asking your child throughout the day how they’re feeling.

Feeling identification helps kids to express their emotions in a healthy manner.

Once you’ve taught your child how to identify what they’re feeling, you can teach them how to express those emotions in a healthy way. Instead of simply letting your child spiral, you can teach them how to process their feelings and manage their emotions.

For example, if your child is getting frustrated because they’re having a hard time pulling apart two Lego pieces, they may not think to ask for help or let out a cathartic sigh. Instead, they may slam the piece on the table or growl angrily. This is a good time to step in as the parent and say something like, “I can see you’re frustrated, but there’s a better way to deal with that emotion. Let’s take a deep breath and figure it out together.”

Helping kids learn how to identify their feelings and healthily express them takes some effort and time, but it’s worth the investment. The sooner your child learns these life skills, the easier it will be to communicate with them and help them.