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Help Your Kids Name and Talk to Their Big Emotions

Help Your Kids Name and Talk to Their Big Emotions
May 2023

I was a fully grown adult before I learned that identifying emotions is the first step to dealing with them. Now I keep a feelings wheel handy at all times, just in case anyone needs help distinguishing between feeling angry and afraid, or between annoyed and nervous. I've also found the feelings wheel useful in times when my child has a big feeling but doesn't know how to express it. It helps us find the right word for her emotion, and then explore what it means together.

Devon Loftus's new book Dwell: A Journal for Naming, Processing, and Embracing Your Emotions expands on this practice with exercises to help you identify, personify, and converse with emotions. This is an in-depth workbook intended for adults, but children can benefit from some of these practices too. By using their imaginations to create a sort of inner counsel of emotional characters to help them process big feelings, they will be better equipped to manage them, and keep from getting overwhelmed.

I spoke with Loftus, mom to a 3-year-old boy, about how parents can use her process to help children identify and cope with feelings. She said she first started interacting with her feelings as characters when she was a child and facing times of stress when .

"To help regulate, I would go outside and spend hours in the woods behind my grandma's house talking to these emotions," she said. "I didn't realize at first that that's what I was doing. But, I'd build worlds and characters. And through those characters, I'd play out how I felt or what was happening."

Three steps to name, personify, and converse with an emotion

Relating to her emotions as characters helped Loftus feel understood as a kid, and she wants to help her own child build the same tools. She described how she facilitates the three-step process with her son:

  • Name the emotion. Ask "Who's there?" to invite him to name the emotion he's feeling. You can prompt by offering suggestions like anger, sadness, surprise, fear, excitement, etc.
  • Make it physical. Prompt your child to describe how their body feels when this emotion is present. Does it make them want to move in a particular way, like dancing, jumping, spinning, etc.?
  • Release it. By doing the physical action, the feeling may dissipate. Say "bye-bye for now" to that feeling as he feels more regulated.
  • Name the emotion. Ask "Who's there?" to invite him to name the emotion he's feeling. You can prompt by offering suggestions like anger, sadness, surprise, fear, excitement, etc.Make it physical. Prompt your child to describe how their body feels when this emotion is present. Does it make them want to move in a particular way, like dancing, jumping, spinning, etc.?Release it. By doing the physical action, the feeling may dissipate. Say "bye-bye for now" to that feeling as he feels more regulated.

    "After a few months or so, he's started doing it on his own," Loftus said. "He'll tell me, 'Baby's mad at Mommy' and then he'll take a few deep breaths. Once he's a bit more regulated, if he needs or wants to, we'll talk about why he's feeling what he's feeling and what he needs from us." And the steps don't just work for negative emotions: "He does it when he's happy or excited, too," she added, noting that teaching kids emotional literacy is important for both challenging emotions and joyful ones.

    "We want to better understand our heavier and more daunting emotions so that we can fully celebrate and live with our gorgeous, free, and light-filled emotions," Loftus said. "As my therapist puts it, the more capacity we have to hold the hard emotions, the more capacity we have to carry the ones that make us thrilled to be alive."

    Loftus intentionally pauses when she experiences a moment of delight so she can savor it and share it with her son. She also models naming and processing emotions when she is having harder moments.

    "I try and tell [him], 'Mommy's really frustrated right now' and give him a reason why-one that never includes him. 'Mommy's really frustrated because she overloaded her schedule', 'Mommy's really overwhelmed because she's overstimulated'," she said.

    Five key steps to help children connect with their emotions

    Finally, Loftus offers a handful of reminders for parents who want to help their children connect with emotions:

  • Let go of sorting emotions into good/bad or positive/negative. "It's an entire spectrum of being alive-ness. Find a way to celebrate that together," Loftus said.
  • If you can't find the right word for a feeling, make up your own. "We love the book Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, by Rachel Vail because it validates a very relatable feeling while making it personalized and playful."
  • Individualize your approach to your child and their emotions. Notice how they relate to emotions - is it through drawing, storytelling, pretend play, movement, or music? Incorporate their expression of choice into learning about emotions.
  • Treat your kids (and yourself) with the utmost compassion. "Emotions are messy shapeshifters. The goal is to create a safe space to explore them together, not to be perfect at 'mastering' them," Loftus said.
  • Practice exploring your own emotions, too. "Modeling emotional intelligence is one of the most supportive things we can do for our babes (and ourselves)."
  • Let go of sorting emotions into good/bad or positive/negative. "It's an entire spectrum of being alive-ness. Find a way to celebrate that together," Loftus said.If you can't find the right word for a feeling, make up your own. "We love the book Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, by Rachel Vail because it validates a very relatable feeling while making it personalized and playful."Individualize your approach to your child and their emotions. Notice how they relate to emotions - is it through drawing, storytelling, pretend play, movement, or music? Incorporate their expression of choice into learning about emotions.Treat your kids (and yourself) with the utmost compassion. "Emotions are messy shapeshifters. The goal is to create a safe space to explore them together, not to be perfect at 'mastering' them," Loftus said. Practice exploring your own emotions, too. "Modeling emotional intelligence is one of the most supportive things we can do for our babes (and ourselves)."

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