Teaching Emotions to Children

girl holding a rabbit

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Faber and Mazlish in their classic “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen And How To Listen So Kids Will Talk” offer some great advice on teaching emotions to children,

to which I’ve added my own elucidation and explanation. Please keep in mind that these points are an ideal which may be difficult for many parents to fully achieve. Therefore we must have patience with ourselves, keeping in mind that doing as much as we can will be of great benefit to our children.

Helpful rules for teaching emotions to children:

1.    Listen when a child expresses a feeling, need, want, desire or inclination. Really, intently listen!
2. Acknowledge their statement of feelings with an “Oh . . . , “Mmm . . .” or  “I see . . .”

3. Give their feelings a name or a label. “So you’re feeling frustrated!” “You’re feeling angry!” This is called ‘reflecting’ a feeling. You verbally express back to the child whatever they are feeling.

4.    When a child expresses a bad feeling and we urge her to push it away, she gets more upset. That is an attempt at repression. She needs the opposite, she needs that the feeling flow freely.

5.    Many parents fear that by accepting, validating, hearing and giving names to bad feelings we make them powerful and they will hurt more, but the opposite is true. Doing these things makes them hurt less because someone has acknowledged the child’s inner experience.

girl in a grove with a piece of fruit smiling

6.    If a child really desires something you can’t give him, you have to really show him that you deeply recognize and validate that desire. “Wow, I see you really want some ice cream so much. I wish I had some to give you. If I did, I would give you a huge dripping cone” This soothes the frustration of an unfulfilled desire. It is similar to someone who asks you for money on the subway. If you can’t give it, a kind word recognizing their need makes them feel as good as if you gave them something. See my post: How to tell my child I can't buy him what he wants, here.

7.    Empathize with your child. That means, show him you know how he feels.

8.    Try statements like, “Sounds like you’re angry!” and “You must be disappointed” and “That’s frustrating” and “I see you’re upset.”

9.    When you acknowledge someone’s feelings instead of giving advice, you give him the power to figure out a solution on his own.

10.    If a child is upset, it might not actually be a good idea to ask her to try and formulate a reason or explanation, because this process distracts her from her feelings. Instead focus on reflecting her feelings.

11.    You don’t have to agree with the child, just give him the right to feel his feelings and to recognize what he’s experiencing.

12. Don’t be afraid you will reflect the wrong feeling. If you do, the child will quickly correct you and there will be no harm done.

boy eating a cherry

13.  If a child expresses negative feelings towards a parent such as, “I hate you,” etc., try not to feel offended and try not to reprimand him. Instead, continue reflecting as, “I see you’re really angry at me.” This will bring the quickest resolution! However, just denying the child the right to feel angry at his parents will probably make him feel more frustrated and want to rebel. Remember a child does not have the right to do anything he wants but he does have the right to feel anything he wants, because feelings are automatic and not the product of choice, and they must be accepted. See my post: What to do when your child says, "I hate you," here.

14.    Try asking the child to draw how he feels on a piece of paper. Then describe what he drew, “Wow it looks like you’re angry.”

15.    Reflect back the same intensity of emotion. If the child is expressing sadness. Reflect in a sad voice. If the child is enraged, reflect in a serious (but not sad) voice, “You sound furious!”

16.    Develop real compassion for how the child is feeling. Acknowledging a child’s feelings puts him in touch with his inner reality. Once he’s clear about that reality he gathers strength to begin to cope. Once he has labels for his feelings he can begin to change his behavior.

17.    Don’t pressure your children to be happy all the time. Allow them to be miserable sometimes if they need to be.
Emotions are the most critical aspect of a person’s psychological and physical health. Yet they are often very under-respected!

Following these steps for teaching emotions to children is the key to actually preventing lifelong mental disorders.

This is even more important in childhood when a child’s psychological makeup is in the middle of being created. The key is to teach children a respect and awareness of the emotional events in their lives. This is done in an interpersonal venue, that is through a warm supportive parent-child relationship. That relationship must be strengthened and guarded at all costs. For a deeper discussion of the topic of kids' emotions, click here.

Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my informative free reports.

If you are going through challenges teaching emotions to children, and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,

you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15 minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

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