Teaching children about feelings

Children are emotional beings…as anyone who spends any length of time with children knows! While as babies and toddlers they convey their feelings through sounds or actions, as they develop language, they start to put words on these feelings.

At the moment, my 3½  year old’s favourite word is ‘excited’, or, using her words, ‘exciting’, as in, “I’m very exciting”…well she is that too! For children with language difficulties, sensory needs and/or behavioural needs, the ability to understand and use feeling words may not come so easily. They may not have the words to express this sensation in their body, that is fear, or may not be able to express why they are feeling sad. They may need to be explicitly taught about feelings. Below are some tips which can help.

  1. Start with the basics: Get the basic feelings such as happy, sad, angry well established first, before moving to more complex emotions, such as worried, excited, etc.  Remember that even though a child may use a particular feeling word, that they may not fully understand it.
  2. Make some faces: Get the mirror out, and explore different facial expressions.
  3. Connect feelings to the body:  Talk about how we experience emotions in different parts of the body. It’s important that children learn to recognise feelings in their body, for example,  “When I feel scared, my mouth opens wide, my tummy feels tight….”
  4. Put words on how your child is feeling: Even if your child is non-verbal, put a word on how you think your child is feeling.  For a child who has just had a tantrum, “You’re feeling sad,” can be a trigger to connect with the underlying feelings which set off the tantrum.  Having someone reflect back our feelings helps us feel heard and acknowledged…and this is as relevant for adults as it is for children.
  5. Relate feelings to situations: Feelings make sense when a child can relate them to personal experiences, “You felt sad when…”. You can also talk about how different characters in books or TV programmes feel.
  6. Feeling and doing:  It’s important that children know that all feelings are OK, it’s the subsequent actions which may need some tweaking! Help your child to develop strategies to cope when feeling sad or angry. For example, When I’m angry I can…., or “It’s OK to…”
  7. Make up a personalised feelings book: You can tie all of the above ideas together into a personalised book, such as ‘My angry book’, This could include photos of your child looking angry, situations which make your child angry, and what he or she can do. Make sure to include a ‘happy book too, with things that your child enjoys to do, places he or she likes to go and special people in his/her life.
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