Human beings have a lot of feelings. Knowing what to do with those feelings is what helps us become emotionally intelligent, self-compassionate, resilient human beings. And like many things, this starts young. So today we want to share three things we can teach children about their feelings.

1. Feelings give us information.

Paying attention to our feelings helps us make sense of what we’re experiencing and helps us manage our responses in a healthy way. Teaching children that everyone has feelings, and that feelings drive our behavior can help them link the two. For example, if a child knocks over her brother’s Lego creation and storms out of the room, leaving a devastated brother in her wake, it is important to talk to her and link her behavior to her actions. Once she’s calm and ready to talk, which might take a little while, an adult can sit with her and ask, “What were you feeling before you knocked over the Legos? Where were you feeling that in your body? In your fists? In your stomach? How did you know you were feeling that way?” Then the conversation can go towards the idea that we all have feelings, and feelings give us information. Feelings also drive our behavior. You can then ask what she might do differently next time she starts to feel that emotion in her body.

2. All feelings are valid.

We have a tendency to want to eliminate what we consider negative emotions: sadness, anger, fear. As adults, we often are quick to find ways to move past these experiences as quickly as possible, whether in healthy ways (exercise, therapy or talking with friends) or not-so-healthy ways (substance use or risk-taking behavior). Often our goal is to get these feelings gone and replace them with more positive emotions as soon as possible. However, even negative feelings are valid. If we can learn to sit with negative, uncomfortable feelings, we can learn from them. In some of our darkest moments, we grow the most. If we are too quick to move past these emotions, we may be robbing ourselves of the opportunity.

With kids, we can be quick to say things like, “It’s okay” or, “Stop crying”. These messages are meant to soothe and calm the child but can unintentionally send the message that their emotions are not welcome.

Instead, we can allow a child to feel all his feelings. When he’s having a huge meltdown because his favorite toy broke – that’s reasonable! Things like that feel like the end of the world to a child, and an adult saying, “Shhhh… it’s okay” is not comforting. Instead, an adult can sit with the child in his sadness, anger or fear and say, “I understand you’re sad. It makes sense to me why you’re so sad. I can tell you’re really upset. I understand.” This sends the message that these feelings are okay, and that everyone feels these emotions sometimes.

2. Feelings come and go.

All day long, we experience a variety of emotions. We may start out sleepy, then excited, then anxious, then proud, then upset, then rejuvenated, then hopeful, then angry, then disappointed, then happy, then… you get the point. Some of us cycle through emotions every few seconds! With young kids, these emotions don’t always feel like they come and go… they feel like they’ll stay forever. How many times have you seen a child who is angry or upset act as though the world is ending and they’ll never find joy again? This is common for children, who often live in a world that is very black-and-white.

We can teach children that feelings come and go, and that just because they’re feeling a certain way now, doesn’t mean they’ll feel that way forever. There are many ways to explain this to kids – you can talk about feelings like a rollercoaster, or that feelings are like clouds that pass by. Or you can simply take a walk, do a few yoga poses or otherwise find a way to settle the body while the emotions pass through them. Once the emotions have passed, it’s a good idea to revisit and remind them that even though it feels as though our emotions will stick around forever, they actually don’t. Older kids can even write or draw reminders for themselves that they can look at next time they’re having a big emotion.

With these three tips, children can start to understand how to manage their emotions, which is a lifelong skill that will serve them well into adulthood.



For more on helping children understand their feelings and become emotionally intelligent, listen to Episode 9 of The Growing Brain here.

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