Teaching Children About Emotions

[Editor’s Note: Healthy interactions with parents and caregivers during a child’s earliest years help build a strong social-emotional foundation. Children who enter kindergarten with the skills to manage their emotions and interact appropriately with other children are ready to learn. Julie Miller testified before the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee in support of LB773, which will create a panel to study the early childhood workforce in Nebraska and make recommendations for reaching our state’s children at risk.]   

“See Dick run.” “See Jane run.” Do you remember these sentences? These were once the first words some of us learned to read. Perhaps you remember a different reading lesson. At a young age, we were all taught to read. We’ll also remember learning to print letters, then learning cursive later on. How exciting it was to write your own name in cursive. Yet, how many of us remember lessons on learning what to do with our feelings of frustration or anger? I certainly don’t remember any such lesson.

We know that children are not born knowing how to do many things: walk, talk, read, write, hold a spoon. So we teach them how to do these things. But, do we ever think about how they’re not born with the innate ability to express emotions in a healthy way? That probably sounds pretty silly and yet, there haven’t been regular lessons to teach these skills. I do see that changing and have hopes that it will become more prevalent in our lessons, especially for young children.

All emotions are valuable. Yes, all of them. Adults feel all kinds of emotions and we want others to respect our feelings. When we express our feelings to friends, we don’t want them to discount us. We want our feelings to be heard and validated. The same is true for children. When a child is feeling an emotion, it is important that caring adults are there to let them know it’s okay to feel those emotions. The child’s feelings should be honored. Many times I’ve heard adults say to children, “Oh, don’t feel that way.” It breaks my heart. For a child, that message tells them their feelings are not valid and should not be trusted. This dismisses their feelings and that’s not a lesson we want them to learn.

Imagine a child is repeatedly told their fears are not founded, that they’re being silly. So they learn that lesson. Then, they’re in a dangerous situation and feel afraid. A little voice in their head will tell them they can’t trust their own emotions and so they ignore their fears. This could put them at risk. I know this is taking it a little far, but I’m passionate about driving this point home. Children have feelings that adults might not understand. For the child, this is real emotion. Even when a child gets upset by getting a red cup instead of a green cup, we can honor their feelings by giving them acceptable choices.

Makes Learning Easier
When children understand that all emotions are acceptable, and that there are ways to express them appropriately, they’ll be better able to get their needs met and to get along with adults and peers. And, most important, they’ll feel better about themselves. When they have that emotional foundation it will make learning easier.

It’s our job as adults to give children a safe place to land. When children feel strong emotions and an adult is there to help them work through that time, it sends the message to the child that they are going to be OK. Their safe place to land is there for them and they’ll have help getting through this tough time. When adults react to strong emotions with strong emotions, it sends a message that even my safe place can’t handle my emotions. There must be something really wrong with me.

How can we help children learn to express emotions in a healthy way? First, recognize the emotions they are feeling. This could take some investigation and maybe even trial and error. Your efforts won’t go unnoticed. “I see you’re making a scrunchie face. Does that mean you don’t like the taste of limes?  Do you find them disgusting?” Go ahead and say the name of the emotion. They’ll like learning those words: frustrated, ashamed, angry, embarrassed.

Then, let them know feeling that emotion is normal. Follow that up with a statement of empathy. “That’s OK. Sometimes when I eat new foods I find them disgusting.” Let them know we all experience that emotion sometimes. Lastly, tell them what TO DO or help them problem solve. “Just spit out the lime in a napkin and say ‘no thank you, I don’t care for limes.’ ”

As a Special Education teacher I once had a student with a behavior disorder get angry and throw a chair across a classroom. The chair landed at my feet without hitting anyone, miraculously. I calmly had him leave the room with me and sit down. I found out he was being bullied by other students in the room. I told him he had every right to be angry. No one should be allowed to talk to him or treat him that way. However, throwing a chair is not an acceptable behavior. We then discussed what he could do when he felt angry. There are healthy ways to express anger and it is OK to be angry.

Honor children’s feelings as you would honor the feelings of a friend. Help children identify their feelings. They don’t know what it all means and it’s our job to help them. Empathize with their feelings and let them know these emotions are normal and OK! Then, teach them a healthy way to express those emotions and problem solve with them. You won’t be able to do this every time a child has problems, but trying to go through this process when you can will benefit the children and everyone around them.

I recently heard this phrase and think it bears repeating. When a child is expressing strong emotions remember, “He’s not giving you a hard time, he’s having a hard time.” As adults, it’s our job to help them through those times and give children a safe and secure place to land.

Julie Miller, M.Ed.
Early Childhood Program Chair
Southeast Community College

More information on LB773

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