Making Sense of Big Feelings, Little Vocabulary: Emotional Awareness for Young Children

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One of the best gifts you can give to your young child is a strong start in managing his or her own emotions. This starts with giving them a sound understanding that their feelings should not be a source of shame and they are not less than perfect because of their strong emotional thought-reactions. A child who feels shamed for their feelings becomes an adult who shames others. Children who feel comfortable with their own emotions learn to act on them appropriately and emerge mature with the tools necessary to have loving relationships in their family and with others.

Picture these scenes: Suzy just got a new teddy bear, and she excitedly twirls around with it, showing it off to all who will look; the next moment she clutches it tightly and scowls at her new foster sister who has looked at it too intently at it for Suzy’s comfort level. “It’s mine! You can’t have it,” she runs off crying and slams the door to their shared bedroom.

Bobby has played well with his new adopted brother since the moment they met each other, and the two of them get on famously, but today Bobby is cowering and refuses to play together.

Sound familiar? Kids can be hard to figure out sometimes. If we are confused by them, can you imagine how they feel about themselves? This is where the parent can come in, as a sort of feelings coach for them. We can help them build what experts call ‘social intelligence,’ a term defined as the ability to manage one’s own emotions and relate well with others.

Social intelligence is the rudder necessary to navigate interpersonal relationships.  It’s the breeding ground for empathy, and empathy requires a strong understanding of one’s own emotions. Before we can be attuned to the emotions of those around us, we need to be attuned to our own emotions. Children need to be comfortable with their own feelings which come to them in response to their relationship with their new sibling. They need to learn that they are not a bad person for their feelings; they need to learn how to manage them in healthy ways.

As it turns out as in most things, parents are a child’s best teacher in this; parents teach social intelligence by how modeling their own managed emotions and by demonstrating empathy toward them and others. Social intelligence doesn’t need to be taught formally; casual discipleship is how social intelligence is best allowed to grow. Children learn by what parents do far more than by what they say. What this means in the practical, is that a parent can’t lecture a child how they need to remain in control when their upset at something that happened at school, if the parent can’t remain in control when something happens to them at work.  Parents can’t scold a child’s unkindness to another kid on the playground if parents aren’t compassionate to adults they encounter in their life too. The goal isn’t perfection before a parent can teach emotional awareness. The goal is to be authentic that we sometimes blow it too, and that’s ok. Teaching kids how to apologize and repair is important too.

Let’s look at a few areas where you can begin right away to nurture social intelligence in your resident child so that they can have better emotion control when things get tricky with their foster or adopted sibling.

We’ll focus on helping them name their emotions and releasing them from the stigma of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feelings – a label which is unhelpful when it comes to emotion management.

BE AVAILABLE

Parents need to be with their children enough that they can see how you react in any given situation. Keep it real though. If you are upset about something, be transparent enough with them that you admit your strong feelings while you let them see you choose to remain calm and decide to do the right thing anyway. Being transparent allows them see that feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are, but it’s what one does with them that counts. Sometimes feelings or emotions can rush upon our children so fast that they’re so overwhelmed. When we show our children by our examples that our feelings, though powerful, don’t have to control us, we give them ‘permission’ to feel their feelings without judgment. This can help develop their ability to manage their feelings in an increasingly mature way.  No child needs to grow up thinking they are ‘bad’ for having certain emotions. This goes for us parents, too.

HELP YOUR CHILD LABEL THEIR FEELINGS

Help your children correctly identify their feelings for what they are, not a judgment of good or bad. Joseph isn’t a better or worse boy when feelings of anger sweep over him when his new brother messes with the stuff in the bedroom they share. Letting him experience his emotions allows him to diffuse that energy before he reacts in ways that are unhealthy or break the boundaries in your family.

Does he need to cry? Let him. Does he need a hug? Be available. Using reaffirming words such as ‘I know you might be feeling really sad right now, is that right?’ can help him identify some of the feelings that are underlying the stronger ones.  Maybe say, ‘are you feeling scared too because you are afraid he’ll always mess with your things?”

Use wording to demonstrate you are interested in understanding him, discipline later if discipline is necessary after he is calm and feeling secure again. These examples show him that his feelings aren’t wrong, that they are typical and expected.

When your child is encouraged to feel his emotions without judgment, he learns to channel his energy into something besides yelling at or hitting the culprit. The child who feels like his voice is heard is less likely to strike back with words or fists.

TALK ABOUT FEELINGS

Talk about feelings together.  Yours, theirs, other people’s feelings. Use storybooks you read together as springboards to talk to your child about the emotions the characters are experiencing at any given moment. You don’t need to make ‘feelings charts’ or little books unless your child happens to love that kind of thing, but as you go about your regular day, pay attention to others around you and make a game with your children of naming those feelings you might see in others. (Maybe do this game quietly, so not to embarrass anyone as you call their feelings out loud!) No judgment, just naming.

This exercise builds vocabulary for emotions as well as reinforces the idea that everyone has feelings – even grown-ups! When reading books to your children, ask questions like, “what do you think she is feeling here?” or “how can you tell she is feeling happy in that picture?” These activities can be great ways to practice empathy when you combine labeling emotions with discussions of how to help others who are struggling. “Baby bear is sad because he fell down. What could someone do to make him feel better again?”

Of course, that old standby song can come in handy too. Create a hilarious rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It…” by naming emotions as you two contort your faces to demonstrate the emotion. “If you’re cranky and you know it…cross your eyes.” Singing those kinds of songs is also fun if you need to diffuse a potentially volatile situation later on: just start singing your own made up song.

These are some ideas to get you thinking.

You know your family best, so use these as a guideline for what will work best in your family. Hopefully, these will inspire your own creative ideas to support your child into greater awareness and understanding of their strong emotions.

Remember, a healthy relationship to human emotions will give your child a firm foundation toward empathy as you model healthy expression, help them label their feelings, and expose them to a wide variety of feelings in others.

For more ideas to teach and explore feelings, check out our kid workbooks, Adventure in Fostering and Adoption for ages 5-9, and Flying Above the Clouds in Sibling Relationships for ages 10 and up.

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