Helping Young Children With Emotions
Emotional awareness is one of the most important social-emotional skills for your child to learn and develop. Emotional intelligence has been linked to many health outcomes for both children and adults. Although young children under the age of 3 may not yet have the verbal skills to describe what they’re feeling, you can start helping them practice identifying and naming different emotions from an early age.
Here are some simple tips you can incorporate to start teaching your child about emotions and how to express and manage them.
Why is this important?
- Emotional awareness is an important part of developing emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is an essential life skill that helps kids regulate their emotions and avoid blowing up in a strong emotional reaction.
- Kids with high emotional intelligence, who know how to manage their emotions, are better able to pay attention in school, which may lead to better academic outcomes.
- Emotional intelligence is also linked to better school engagement and stronger relationships.
- Adults with high emotional intelligence have better relationships, are more engaged at work, and are less stressed.
How to help your 0 to 3 child to identify feelings:
- Use reflective communication. Children aren’t born knowing the words to describe the emotions they may be feeling. As their parent, you can help by putting names to feelings that you can observe. For example, if they cry after being denied sweets, you might say, “I can see you’re feeling angry because you want the sweets.” If they cry when a parent leaves for work, you might say, “You’re feeling sad because you miss Mommy.”
- As your child starts developing speech, explicitly teach them terms that describe different emotions. Ask your child how they’re feeling, and help them learn the vocabulary to describe these feelings. Depending on your child’s speech development, you might consider expanding their vocabulary past the basic terminology (like “good” or “fine”). What does “worried” feel like, or “frustrated?”
- Use bibliotherapy. Emotional intelligence is also about being able to recognize (and empathize with) different emotions in other people. Any children’s book can be helpful. As you’re reading the story together, ask your child, “How do you think this character is feeling? What happened to make them feel that way?”.
- Talk about your own emotions. Obviously, don’t use your child as an emotional dumping ground. But it is beneficial for your child to understand that adults have feelings, too.
- Play a game. Ask your child to “act out” different feelings in exaggerated ways. For example, when acting out “happy,” they might smile widely or jump for joy.
- Use a mood meter to give your child to check in about their emotions throughout the day. Be careful not to divide the feelings into “good” feelings and “bad” feelings. You can use quadrants instead of a scale so that children understand that all emotions are healthy if expressed in healthy ways.
Click here to download this tip sheet in PDF format.
Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., & Salovey, P. (2011). Emotional intelligence: Implications for personal, social, academic, and workplace success: emotional intelligence. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 88–103. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00334.x
Eggum, N. D., Eisenberg, N., Kao, K., Spinrad, T. L., Bolnick, R., Hofer, C., Kupfer, A. S., & Fabricius, W. V. (2011). Emotion understanding, theory of mind, and prosocial orientation: Relations over time in early childhood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(1), 4–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2010.536776
Social and emotional climate and learning. (2021, November 17). https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/sec.htm
Teaching emotional intelligence in early childhood. (n.d.). NAEYC. Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2017/teaching-emotional-intelligence
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