Young children experience the same complex feelings as adults. Toddlers are little people with big feelings that they don’t always have the words for. They get frustrated, excited, nervous, sad, jealous, frightened, worried, angry and feel embarrassed. They do, however, often lack the ability to effectively communicate and express their feelings. Instead, they may act out these emotions in very physical and sometimes challenging ways.
From the moment they are born, children start developing the emotional skills needed to identify, express and manage their feelings. They learn how to do this through their social interactions and relationships with parents, siblings , grandparents and carers.
Children get more frustrated when they are unable to make you understand what they are feeling, especially when they cannot properly communicate.
The first step is to help your child identify their own emotions and why they are feeling that way. Learning to identify and express feelings in a positive way helps children develop the skills they need to manage them effectively. Here are some basic tips on how to encourage your child to express their feelings in a healthy way:
1. Name the feeling – Help your child name their feelings by giving them labels. By naming feelings, you allow your child to develop their emotional vocabulary, enabling them to talk about what they are feeling. Explain the feeling by using words your child can easily understand. Using picture books is a great way to demonstrate different emotions.
2. Identify feelings in others – Talk about feelings you have or those you see in others. Describe the emotions you observe around you with words.
3. Lead by example - Be a good role model for emotional expression. Children learn so much simply through observation. Show your child how you deal with the emotions you experience in an appropriate manner.
4. Problem-solve - Encourage your child to come up with different ways they may use to deal with their feelings. Talk about the positive and less positive ways of expressing what we feel.
5. Encourage with praise - Reinforce positive and appropriate expressing of emotions with praise. Show your child that it is normal to experience the particular emotion and that you are proud of how they chose to communicate it to you.
6. Listen - Negative behaviour is often minimised when children feel they are being heard. When feelings are minimised or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways.
Garcia suggests using sign-language as a way to help your child express themselves where they lack language skills. She believes that teaching your child a few signs - such as the ones for the words milk, more, eat, bed, hot, cold, hungry, finished - can significantly improve your understanding of what's going on in their heads. Distraction is an age-old parenting technique, and for good reason. When your toddler is getting bent out of shape about something they can't have, or you don't understand, redirect them, suggests Dr. Acredolo (Garcia, n.d.).
Vanderbilt University. (n.d.) identifies the following practical strategies for parents to promote healthy expression of emotion in younger children:
1. Encourage your child to take a deep breath, and slowly breathe out when feeling overwhelmed;
2. Invite them to ask for a hug when they feel sad;
3. Acknowledge what they are feeling: “I can see that you are feeling angry because…”
4. Encourage your child to SAY it, and not DO it (say “I am mad” instead of throwing toys);
5. Provide your child with a quiet space where they are able to calm down and refocus when they are feeling overwhelmed or distressed.
Understanding emotions is a fundamental part of children’s overall development. As adults, we need to teach children to understand and deal with their emotions in appropriate ways. Experiencing so many new and exciting things for the first time can be overwhelming! Be sure to always validate your child’s emotions and don’t punish them for expressing their feelings. You might want to remind your child that, “It’s ok to tell me how you feel, but it’s not ok to hurt others or throw things when you feel (sad/angry/upset).” Help your child come up with new ways to deal with the feelings they experience. Provide many opportunities for them to practice their developing strategies and skills, and always remember to give lots of positive encouragement! If you want to know how we help kids deal with emotions at Turtletot childcare, reach out to us.