Imagine this: Your child had a rough day at school but doesn't know how to share that with you. Instead, she begins throwing toys at their siblings and jumping off furniture. In your frustration, you yell and start taking things away from her in an attempt to get her to stop her destructive behaviors. She becomes more frustrated and overwhelmed by her emotions and is inconsolably crying and lashing out.
The above is prevalent in many families when children don't understand their emotions and feelings.
Give Them the Words
Giving a name to emotions has significant benefits for children and adults. Having the words will empower children to talk openly and honestly about how they are feeling and may even be able to help their friends through their emotional struggles as well. As an adult, giving a name to what you are feeling gives you power over those feelings instead of letting them control you.
When a child begins to express his emotions with a less desirable behavior, giving them the words for those emotions will help them identify that the physical and mental feelings are connected and attributed to the emotions. For example, if a three-year-old gets angry and stamps his feet because he wants candy, get down to his eye level and say something like, "I can see that you are angry right now because you can't have candy."
Instead of focusing so heavily on their behavior, use names of feelings, like angry, mad, sad, happy, frustrated, and others. You convey a great deal of emotional learning when you teach a child about feelings by using the names of emotions.
Validation: It's Okay to Feel
Let them know that it is okay to feel however they are feeling. For example, you can say, "It's okay if you're sad," instead of the more typical response, "Don't be sad, be happy!" if your child feels sad about a situation. Giving children permission to feel and express their feelings can be very validating for them, even if they don't respond that way at the time.
On the other hand, if a young child gets frustrated or angry and throws a toy that could hurt someone, separate their actions from their emotions while acknowledging their feelings. For example, you can say, "I understand that you are frustrated, but we don't throw our toys. It's not okay to throw your toys." By separating their actions from their emotions and from them as people, we are helping them understand that they are not their behavior.
Give Them Healthy and Safe Alternatives
Helping children find healthy ways to express their emotions increases the likelihood that their problems can be solved instead of exacerbated by focusing on their behavior. Healthy self-regulation strategies like mindfulness, deep breathing, and physical activities (like pressing their hands together or pushing a wall) can help them regulate their feelings and focus on positive solutions.
The Bottom Line
Remember, adults need to continue modeling patience and healthy ways to manage their emotions and behaviors even in frustrating situations. Kids are still new to their feelings and need positive adult guidance to have the confidence and knowledge to figure out what to do. Being honest about how you feel and using the proper emotional terms to talk about those feelings will help children identify those same emotions in themselves.