Updated: Dec 2, 2020
If you have ever been to a Psychologist you probably noticed that we tend to talk about feelings A LOT. But there is good reason for our obsession with recognising all the weird and wonderful emotions that we have. When we understand what we are feeling, we stop being so reactive. If we are caught up it an emotion, we go on auto pilot and our body/emotional brain will just take over. If we can stop and label the feeling that usually means that we can try and find a solution and not feel so out of control.
Recognising emotions is also the start of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise emotions in yourself and others, understand how emotions impact people and having the ability to express and regulate your own emotions in a positive way. Research has shown that having high emotional intelligence is a greater predictor of success in adulthood than academic intelligence. It is the key to interacting with people. It is the ability to read what is going on in yourself and what is needed by others around you. When you can do this you start to learn how to regulate your emotions so they aren't out of control, but also express them when you need to. If your child can read emotions to get a sense of how other children are responding to their attempts to be with them, they are more able to respond appropriately. This ability is the foundation to create and maintain friendships.This is an amazing skill to have, and it all starts with recognising feelings.
When kids are little, they are overwhelmed with this emotion that crashes over them like a wave. They have no control over it and they don't really understand what it is. It is our job to label the emotion for them. Just like learning to speak, children need to learn the language of emotions. They need to connect the feeling of Anger with their heart racing, getting hot, wanting to yell and kick. When we can name a feeling it becomes less scary, it becomes normal, something that we all experience.
There is scientific research that explains why labeling feelings is helpful. When we are in a highly emotional state, your limbic or emotional brain takes over. We can no longer think clearly and logically. Our brain is in survival mode and will do what it needs to, either fight, flight or freeze and no amount of someone reasoning with us will work. However, research has found that if we can label the emotion, you will start to activate the prefrontal cortex or thinking part of the brain (Lieberman, 2007). So basically when you or your child is overwhelmed by an emotion, simply being able to say what that emotion is will slow the emotional roller coaster and start the process to help think clearer to find a solution. That is pretty amazing really.
How to teach kids to label feelings
Draw the body cues
When kids are little, sticking to Happy, Sad, Angry, Scared and Worried are fine. They are the building blocks for understanding emotions. However, as children get older we need to expand their emotional vocabulary. For example, there is a difference between feeling angry and disappointed or confused and frustrated. The way we would manage anger and disappointment are probably going to be different too.
Draw what your body feels like for different emotions. You can 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.
If managing anger is difficult, it can be helpful to work out the physical changes as anger builds so they can see the intensity of the emotion and when they need to stop before being out of control. Their heart may race first, then make a fist then yell, hit, kick etc. Some kids can determine if their muscles are tight or they make a fist, 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.
Be a Role model
The best way your kids are going to learn to label feelings and build an emotional vocabulary is to see you do it. Try to use different words to just "I feel good" say I'm relaxed, pleased, content. Recognise when you are frustrated and explain why. Try not to blame your child for your emotions, we are all responsible for our own emotions. Don't say "you are making me angry" try and say "when I trip over your toys that I have asked you to put away I feel annoyed and frustrated". You are giving them a front row seat to see what these emotions look like and how they impact you, there is no better way to learn than being in the moment. Or even better when everyone is calm and you can talk about what happened together.
Use a lot of feelings language at home in all sorts of situations. When your children are upset with each other make sure you ask them both how they felt so that they each can see what was happening for the other person. The need to learn our emotions develop in others and how what they do direct impacts how people around them feel. When you are watching TV together or reading a book, ask your child how they think the characters are feeling. Have they ever felt this way? Making emotions an everyday part of life will develop this understanding in themselves and others.
There are lots of games that you can play that help build an understanding of emotions. You could play charades where you have to act out the emotions. You could guess the feelings face, where you are given a drawing of a feelings face and then you have to describe situations that may cause you to feel that way. You can make this harder by using a larger feelings vocabulary. Basically adding feelings to any game is going to help. If we can make feelings fun, then it is going to be easier for kids to learn.
The feelings wheel
This is a fun little craft that can help to visually identify emotions. I have this one which to be honest I have no idea where I got it. I have had a copy of this on my folders for at least 15 years but I still find it handy. You can draw your own or see what you can find on Pinterest etc. You cut the circles out and cut a hole for the face. The lay the circle with the body on top of the other and use a split pin to join them. Then you should be able to move the bottom circle to reveal different facial expressions.
You can use this in different ways. It might be a good way for your child to show you how they are feeling. This will help them connect their body with the emotion. You could use it to help your child understand how someone else is feeling. Or you can play a “feelings detective” game. Have your child use the wheel to try and guess how others are feeling. Again you can use characters in a book or on TV show to do this.
Recognising and labeling emotions is an incredibly important skill. This still will physically change our brain from reactive emotions to being able to think logically and being more regulated. It is also the foundation of building emotional intelligence. The skill that will help our children succeed in life throughout adulthood.