Adults have plenty of words to describe the positive and negative emotions we all experience, whether that’s joy, contentment, enthusiasm, anger, fear, irritation, or sadness. Young children tend to express their feelings spontaneously, through tearful outbursts or unrestrained bursts of enthusiasm; it takes time to develop the ability to engage in complex, in-depth conversations about emotions. Trusted adults can help children in this journey by talking with them about their emotions and sharing strategies for managing their feelings.
The Education Endowment Foundation recommends an explicit approach to teaching emotional skills. For children to be able to identify their emotions, they need to know their names, and understand how they manifest. One way adults could help children name their emotions is by enriching their vocabularies. When reading a story to a child, for example, it can be helpful to explain the meaning of specific emotional words and elaborate on characters’ emotions.
“Young children tend to express their feelings spontaneously, through tearful outbursts or unrestrained bursts of enthusiasm.”
To help children identify their feelings on a given day or at a certain moment in the day, a mood journal (either online or on paper) or a feelings wheel can be beneficial. These tools are adaptable to the child’s age and preferences. A mood journal includes words, symbols, or pictures of faces displaying various emotions; children select the word, symbol or picture that best represents how they feel that moment, elaborating on it if they wish.
By paraphrasing what children say and mirroring the expressions on their faces, adults empower them to express their emotions. This can help children gain a better understanding of their emotions and give them the confidence to recognise what they are feeling. When things seem out of control, identifying emotions is often a first step towards interpreting which emotion a situation is triggering and deciding how to respond to it.
“When things seem out of control, identifying emotions is often a first step towards interpreting which emotion a situation is triggering and deciding how to respond to it.”
Identifying the emotion a child is currently feeling can help to start a conversation about what it signals to them. Positive emotions, such as joy, trigger playful approach behaviours, facilitating exploration and connections with others. Negative emotions can have benefits as well – they help us recognise that something is lacking, or needs to be changed or protected. Anger signals that something conflicts with our goals or values, and prompts actions to protect and defend them. Sadness is a response to the loss of something or someone that matters and tends to induce withdrawal instead of action. Finally, fear helps us to avoid dangers in the natural and social world.
Negative emotions can be beneficial in avoiding dangers and processing loss, but when uncontrolled, they can lead to anxiety and compromise communication with others. Understanding what triggers negative emotions, what these emotions signal, and how they are to be interpreted, is key to striking a balance between an impulsive reaction to an external event and a considered response. For example, a child might be angry that a friend took the last piece of cake at a party. Reflecting on the situation, and the possibility that their friend was willing to share the piece of cake, could lead the child to reconsider their anger and prevent a conflict. Adults play an important role in helping children develop that understanding of other people’s perspectives.
“Stories and role play are effective ways to encourage children to discuss the emotions and perspectives of others.”
Stories and role play are effective ways to encourage children to discuss the emotions and perspectives of others, and to help them develop social awareness and build relationships. There are also numerous strategies for creating a space between reaction and response. Children can create that space themselves by delaying action (stopping and thinking first), relaxing, or using self-calming techniques such as breathing exercises. As they do so, they can be encouraged to take others’ needs and perspectives into account.
As guides and role models, adults can support children’s emotional learning by explicitly talking about emotions, responding to, and elaborating on children’s expressions of emotion, discussing others’ perspectives, and providing children with the tools they need for emotion regulation. Emotional learning is a lifelong journey during which adults and children can progress and evolve together.