It’s natural for your child to act out when she doesn't quite understand what she's feeling. Her thoughts and feelings naturally contribute to her behavior -- so teaching your child about her thoughts, feelings and behavior is key to her development and self-awareness.
“Teaching children about feelings is extremely important,” says Ellie Hirsch, Tampa, Fla.-based mother of three and founder of Mommy Masters, a website dedicated to helping parents create flourishing family environments. “If they're sensitive to others' feelings and their own when they are younger, this trait will stay with them as they grow older.” Using real examples and activities to educate your child about her own mind will help her to connect with her friends, family and peers in a variety of social situations.
Use Real Examples
“Using real examples that the children have experienced or demonstrated will allow them to relate to the topic of feelings and thoughts,” says Hirsch. For example, even though Hirsch's 6-year-old recently wanted the last slice of pizza, he chose to give it to his 4-year-old brother instead. “I took this as an opportunity to teach a lesson, by explaining that we treat people how we want to be treated,” she says. Hirsch asked her 4-year-old how it felt when his brother made a sacrifice for him, and he said it felt good. “I told him that by doing what his brother did, it made everyone feel good,” says Hirsch.
One primary method of teaching your child about her thoughts and feelings is to show that you understand and empathize. “Being sensitive to a child’s feelings allows for better communication,” says Hirsch. For example, if your child gets in trouble for something, try and understand why she did it and speak to her emotions before getting upset. “This creates a calmer atmosphere for everyone and lets them feel that I'm not talking down to them, but rather understanding things from their point of view,” says Hirsch.
Consider using phrases such as this: “Mommy is not happy with your behavior. I understand that it's fun to wrestle, and I love seeing you guys laughing and playing; however, it's not fun if someone gets hurt.” Communicate your thoughts and feelings toward your child’s behavior to model your understanding, but also your own feelings and thoughts. “This takes a lot of patience and practice, but it is well worth it once you get the hang of it,” says Hirsch.
Play the Feelings Game
Many times, children may feel a certain way, but don't understand how others are feeling. Teach your child to observe and assess others’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors with a guessing game. Have your children guess what emotion you're feeling based on the faces you make, suggests Hirsch. Then, have them give an example of situations where they may feel the same way. “If you make a face with a frown, they have to guess it’s a sad face and give an example of what might make them sad,” says Hirsch. “You can then switch the activity so they understand that adults also have feelings and emotions.”
Much of the toddler and preschool years are about nurturing social skills within our children. “We teach them to channel their feelings in socially appropriate ways,” says Dr. Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, staff psychologist at the New York Center for Child Development. “Children at this age need parents, teachers and other involved adults to give them words for their big feelings and thoughts.” The more a child can express how he's feeling or what he's thinking, the better he can understand his behavior.
Limit-setting and redirecting, when needed, can go hand-in-hand with labeling feelings, says Sawyer Cohen. Parents and teachers can simply say, “I can see you’re angry, but it’s not OK to push” or “I can see you want to be really messy right now, so let’s build a big block tower and crash it down.” You can give your child the consistent message that the feeling itself is acceptable while the behavior may or may not be.
“Learning to identify and express emotions is a key aspect of social-emotional development, which paves the way for successful relationships and academic learning,” says Sawyer Cohen.