Emotion language provides children a tool for managing social exchange. By the time they get to Kindergarten, I want children to be able to look at their friend and say, “I am mad at you. You took my block,” rather than clobber them. There are many ways to teach children emotion language, here are a few:
- Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way by putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, and people are running). This AVOIDS blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
- Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide following an emotional exchange, once all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
- Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
- Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
- Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
- Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. When Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
- Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
- Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
- Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
- Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
- Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
- Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into six squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
- Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
- Paint emotion pictures – You might paint while you listen to the emotional music.
- Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
For more ideas you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to our workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.