It’s no secret that kids have trouble expressing emotion. When a child feels something she doesn’t know how to express, it’s likely she’ll act out. Teaching emotional literacy is one of the most important things a parent can do to help ensure a child’s sense of wellbeing and future success. Emotional literacy helps foster self-regulation, it leads to better physical and mental health, and studies have shown that emotionally literate children perform better in school.
It’s clear that emotional literacy is important, but what is it exactly? It can be broken down into four distinct components: identifying emotions, recognizing emotions as you feel them, knowing ways to manage and regulate feelings, and empathizing with others.
Here are some ways you can foster emotionally literacy in your child:
Illustrate the Mind and Body Connection
Show your child how emotions can be linked to physical sensations. For example, anger often leads to a hot face, and worry leads to an uncomfortable tummy. This approach will maximize her ability to learn about the entire range of one’s feelings—and it can be a fun opportunity for your kid to bring her feelings to the surface, which aids self-awareness.
Teach Self-Management Skills
Explain to your child that there is no feeling that is inherently bad. What matters is how we manage those feelings, such as anger. Teach her the simple skill of taking a deep breath and calmly describing her state of mind. This helps distance her from her troubling emotions and plug her into her five senses, soothing her intense reaction. Children with this emotional regulation skill are better able to resist inappropriate behavior such as hitting or yelling.
Express Your Own Emotions
Make verbal expression a part of everyday life, using age-appropriate language your child will understand. For example, you might say, “I’m frustrated that we are stuck in this traffic. I’m going to take some deep breaths to relax my body. This will help my cranky feeling.” Kids who grow up in an environment with acceptance and understanding of feelings become more aware of emotions, and they’re more likely to express their feelings in appropriate ways.
It is helpful for young children to see adults practice acts of emotional literacy. If your child is fighting with another child over a toy, step in and show them how to share. Play with a toy for about 20 seconds, and then give the toy to one child, saying, “Your turn.” Then say, “Her turn,” and suggest that she pass the toy to the other kid. Continue the pattern until they pass the toy back and forth on their own. These skills help kids make and keep friends, improve communication and foster conflict-resolution.
Teach Mindful Awareness
Mindfulness is like meditation—it keeps the mind anchored in the present moment. Show your child how to relax the body, which will relax the mind. Simply have her sit still and try to notice all her thoughts in the moment. Then have her refocus on relaxing parts of her body. Studies have shown that children displayed greater executive function and behavioral control after undergoing mindful awareness training.
Use Stories or Photos to Discuss Emotions
Children are great at identifying with characters in their favorite stories. Read children’s books that have characters experiencing various emotions, and discuss with your child how she feels when she experiences those emotions herself. For examples of emotions that are closer to real-life, look at photos of people in different emotional states, and ask your child to identify what each person is feeling.
When children are introduced to ways to understand, accept and manage their feelings, the benefits are invaluable. Emotional literacy is one of the greatest gifts you can give as a parent.
Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D., is the author of Happy, Sad, and Everything In Between: All About My Feelings. She is a pediatric psychologist with dual credentials as a school psychologist who has been active as a clinician, researcher, consultant, lecturer, author and workshop facilitator for over a decade. Visit her at: www.drsunnyimwang.com