Why it’s so important to help children learn about their emotions early on in life and what we as caregivers can do to help them.
We know what it’s like to have good and bad days. Our emotions can feel like we’re on a roller coaster at times - 2020/21 anyone? And of course, it’s no different for children. Why would it be?
Kids feel every emotion just as we adults do: from joy and happiness to sadness and anger. The difficulty for them is that they just don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves in the way that we do. We might say, for example, ‘I’ve had a crap day and I feel really frustrated’ or ‘I feel so desperately sad and lonely because my partner’s away with work and I’m at home with the kids on my own’.
Not yet having this skillset, kids will communicate in the only way they know how, through facial expressions, their body, behaviour and play. And of course, in the same way some of the language we use to express our emotions may be a little blue at times, these forms of expression a child uses may also be seen as inappropriate and even problematic at times.
Why should we help children learn about their emotions from an early age?
Kids are learning from the very moment they’re born and their social and emotional skills start to develop from a very young age. They learn from their interactions with others and their surroundings and that means we, their primary caregivers, play a crucial role in this development.
But why is it so important for children to learn about their emotions from an early age? It’s really interesting to look at the benefits a child can gain from being afforded these skills early on. Here are just some of them:
- Normalising feelings helps decrease anxiety. Big emotions can be very scary for children. But allowing kids space to talk about them so they know it’s normal will mean they may not try to ignore or suppress them, which can cause unnecessary stress and overwhelm and long-term, may manifest in physical health problems.
- The more a child understands about their emotions and how to express them, the less likely they are to use tantrums, aggression and other ‘inappropriate’ methods to get their feelings heard.
- When a child feels calm and safe, they find it easier to focus and maintain their attention, which is central to their overall development.
- Helping children understand what they’re feeling and why will empower them later in life in how they relate to others.
- Expressing, understanding and communicating our emotions successfully is a foundation of good mental health and wellbeing. If this becomes a normal part of life at a young age, there's less chance someone will resort to negative coping strategies in the future.
With all these benefits in mind, what can we do to help children learn about their emotions?
How to help children learn about their emotions
1: Give feelings and emotions names
A child naturally feels emotions, but in order to be able to express themselves, a child must have the vocabulary to do so. This was something hugely important to us when we were writing The Positive Doodle Diary. We wanted to create a vocabulary that children could relate to and use easily themselves.
We decided that the weather would be the perfect way to help little ones tap into their emotions. It’s very emotive, we all experience it and we’re all able to describe it. Added to that, we’re used to talking about it - even the bad stuff! So although some weather patterns are a bit unpleasant, there’s no right or wrong way for the weather to be. It’s just an ever-changing set of circumstances - exactly like us and our emotions!
These are the weather icons we use every day in the Doodle Dear Diary pages:
☀️ Happy 🌈 Excited ⭐️ Calm ⛅️ Brave 💨 Worried 🌪 Jealous ☔️ Sad ⚡️ Angry
2: Talk about emotions and feelings
So now you’ve armed your kids with some vocabulary, you need to be actively talking with your children about how they’re feeling.
Children of a young age can learn through our Doodle weather symbols. As they get older, you can introduce discussions about what's happened to make them feel this way. Talking with a child like this will help them process what they’re feeling and make sense of their emotions. It will also help calm them down. We know how good we feel when we’ve been able to talk through something with a close friend. Let your child experience that with you too.
The more we normalise these conversations, the easier it will be for our children to know that feelings are important and it’s OK for them to be there. Try to take time to listen empathically and accept all their feelings - the positive and negative ones. We know it’s tempting to want to fix things immediately, but think more about showing you understand. This way you give their feelings validation. Show that it’s OK to feel ALL the feelings. Even the big, overwhelming ones.
3: Identify and talk about other people’s feelings
Of course, in order to forge healthy relationships and connect with people, a child needs to think not just about their own feelings but those of others too. Our daily interactions with people involve the conscious and also subconscious recognition of how other people are feeling and perhaps even why.
One way we can help children learn about this is to look at facial expressions and understand what each one means. Books are a fabulous resource for talking about other people’s emotions. When you’re looking at books together, take time to talk about the facial expressions your child can see. What does a downturned mouth mean? And why do you think they look like that? What has happened to make them feel that way? When do you feel like that? What makes you feel like that? Do you think there's anything you could do to change that?
You could even make this into a craft project based on the ‘Meet the Scribblers’ exercise in our Positive Doodle Diary. Draw or paint a big blank face on a sheet of paper and then see how many different facial parts you can create in all different expressions to add to the face. It’s a brilliant way of bringing up different discussion topics.
4: Model behaviour
Children see and children do. You’ve probably heard this before and it is so, so true. If you lose your cool at the drop of the hat, why shouldn’t your child? As we said, children start learning as soon as they’re born and they learn from who and what they’re around - whether that’s you and other family members, their teachers, or what they see on TV and other media.
So be sure to follow the rules you set for your child and be aware of modelling healthy behaviour. If we’re honest, it won’t just help them. Being more aware of your emotions and reactions yourself will help you too.
5: Teach coping strategies
How can I take more care of myself? This is a question we as adults should try to ask ourselves as often as we can and we believe the same should be true of children.
Self-care is something that means you’re looking after yourself both in mind and body and giving yourself the time you deserve. As adults it can take many different forms. It could be a hot cuppa, a warm bath or a chat with a friend. We can help children understand what self-care is by explaining that it's listening to our body and our mind and trying to do things that make us feel calm and good.
Teaching children how to take care of themselves like this is incredibly empowering and something that will help them in years to come. In fact, we feel it’s so important to lay these foundations early on that we featured a question about it on the 'Dear Diary' pages of The Positive Doodle Diary: ✨ Today I took care of myself by: ✨
We included it because we want to give little Doodlers an opportunity to really think about how they can look after themselves. If you’re looking for some ideas and inspiration, here are some great ones to get you started:
- Listening to some music (and perhaps dancing too)
- Creating! Mindful colouring, drawing and painting are brilliant ways for children to self-soothe
- Drinking a mug of something comforting like warm hot chocolate
- Journaling - you can take a look at our How to Journal with Children blog for tips on how to get started
- Playing with a worry stone or squeezing a stress ball
- Taking a warm bath or shower
- Cuddling a pet
Go easy and keep it in perspective
We all know that talking about emotions isn’t easy so praising a child when they’ve tried to articulate how they’re feeling will encourage them to continue and hopefully begin to make it normal. In all this though, if you want to help children learn about their emotions it’s good to try and keep a natural balance. Talking about emotions is good, but there are many, many sides to life, so keep it in perspective and don’t force things. Creating an atmosphere where it’s OK to talk about emotions is the most important thing. It will let your child feel they can speak when they need to and will be heard. And we think that sounds the ideal place to be.
Much love and positive vibes,
Ali + Finn xx