When you think of helping children express their feelings, you might think of anger or frustration, showing in the form of meltdowns and tantrums.
Typically, they are uncomfortable for everyone and possibly even hazardous — to kids and others!
But there are other “big” feelings, too, and you’ll want to help your little ones express all of them.
When helping children express their feelings, here are 3 tips and ideas.
1. Identify which feelings you find hard to cope with.
This begins with recognizing that all feelings are acceptable. And that might be easier said than done. For some, that means even feelings like joy and happiness.
Don’t believe it? Think about this for a moment. When you were a child, was it okay for you to be joyful? That would mean being loud, giggly, or even acting silly. Was that acceptable behavior in your family?
What about being sad? Were the adults in your home comfortable when you cried? Or did you get the well-intentioned attempt to reassure and soothe, “Don’t cry. Everything will be fine. You’ll see!”
And what about worry? Or guilt? Or disappointment? Or even anger?
If you think about it, you’ll probably notice that some feelings were okay to have and express. Others were sometimes okay. And some were definitely not okay at all.
You learned which feelings fit into which category without much explanation. You had a lived experience and you learned.
So, take some time to become aware of which feelings were not acceptable in your childhood or family of origin.
Then you can begin to notice how those “unacceptable” feelings impact you when your child expresses them.
If they make you uncomfortable and you feel a need to make them stop, your child will know. Just like you knew when you were a child.
This happens without you having to explicitly tell your children. They’ll know because they live that understanding with you.
2. Focus on remaining calm so you can respond — not react — to your child’s feelings.
Now that you know what emotional expressions are likely to trigger your discomfort, you’ll be more aware of your own discomfort in these moments.
But, there’s a possibility that you will not be totally in charge of how you respond… yet!
With this in mind, it becomes even more important for you to figure out how to stay calm when your child is expressing feelings that trigger you.
Explore until you find calming strategies that work for you.
When you’re able to notice you’re triggered and deliberately practice staying calm and curious, that will give your child permission and “space” to express their feelings as they need to.
3. Engage with your child to help make sense of their feelings and work through them.
Start by labeling your child’s feelings and tell them what clued you in.
When you notice a behavior that seems to be an emotional expression, give it a name. Laughing and running looks like “joy” or happiness. So, call it what it is.
“You look happy!” tells them that something you see in their behavior communicates that feeling. Or, “You sound happy!” tells them that the way they sound makes you think that they are feeling happy.
They might agree. Or not. Either way, validate their perspective and stay curious about their experience.
This is a time to focus on trying to understand.
Once you understand, you’ll know what they need from you, especially if you’ve been able to stay calm throughout this conversation and kept your focus on understanding their experience of what’s happening.
Continue to work with these tools through all the feelings that trigger discomfort in you and your child will get the message that all feelings are acceptable.
You may still need to set limits on the behaviors they use to express those feelings, but if you’re able to stay calm and listen — really listen — and try to understand, you’ll find ways to set those limits to achieve win-win solutions.
Judith Pinto is a Registered Occupational Therapist, Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional with extensive training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT). For more information, visit her website.