The first key to emotional intelligence is self-awareness. Awareness of who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, our likes and dislikes, our triggers but most importantly what we are feeling. When I see a child for therapy, whether the reason they came was for anxiety, anger or social skills training, I almost always start with emotion recognition.
Understanding what our emotions really are helps us interpret what is happening around us and make an informed choice. If we just react with the wave of emotion there is no time to process what is happening and what the consequences will be. For example, if a child looses in a game, they can we overwhelmed with rage. However, if they can recognise that they are disappointed and sad their response could be completely different. However, understanding what we are feeling isn't simple.
In teaching children to distinguish emotions we have to go to the basic physical cues of the emotions
Start with a body shape. It is also fun to trace around the child and work with a life sized drawing.
Ask the child to choose a colour for each emotion you are going to talk through. Colour coding emotions can be helpful. Sometimes children will relate more to a colour than the word for the emotion. The basics are happy, sad, angry, scared and/or worried. You can have any emotions that you think need to be worked through.
Ask the child to think about what they feel for each emotion. Have them think about what their head, chest, heart, arms, legs and stomach. Are they hot, cold, sweaty? What are their thoughts like? Are they racing? Draw on where they feel these body changes. Just do squiggles or lines, it doesn't have to be perfect.
The body will be covered in drawing but this helps the child see all the changes that emotions have on our bodies.
They can see that when happy your arms might feel full of energy, heavy when sad and tight or strong when angry. These changes are all clues of how we are feeling.
You can also talk about how some emotions have similar responses on our bodies. Angry and scared will both cause their heart to race but they are very different emotions. It is important to help them see that while there are similarities, there are differences that they can look for.
This exercise is the foundation. There are many ways to build on these. If managing anger is difficult, it can be helpful to work out the physical changes so they can see the intensity of the emotion and when they need to stop before being out of control. For example, some kids can determine if their muscles are tight or they make a fist, then they need to move away from the situation. If they are anxious, they can use this to see when they need to do controlled breathing to help relax their body. By helping them know what they are feeling we are giving them insight into how to respond.