How to Teach Kids About Their Feelings

Teach your child how to talk about her feelings.
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Feelings are complicated, especially for a 4-year-old who doesn't understand why you won't let them eat another cookie or an 8-year-old who is upset that you got called into work and you have to leave the playground early.

It's hard to teach kids about feelings because it's a fairly abstract concept. It's hard to describe how it feels to be sad, scared, or excited. It's important to begin teaching kids about their emotions as early as possible since their feelings affect every choice they make.

Kids who understand their emotions are less likely to act out by using temper tantrums, aggression, and defiance to express themselves. A child who can say, “I’m mad at you,” is less likely to hit. And a child who can say, "That hurts my feelings," is better equipped to resolve conflict peacefully.

Teaching your child about their emotions will help them become mentally strong. Kids who understand their emotions and have the coping skills to deal with them will be confident that they can handle whatever life throws their way.

Name Your Child's Feelings

Teach your preschooler basic feeling words such as happy, mad, sad and scared. Older kids can benefit from learning more complex feeling words such as frustrated, disappointed, and nervous.

A great way to help kids learn about feelings is to discuss how characters in books or TV shows may feel. Pause to ask, “How do you think he feels right now?” Then, discuss the various feelings the character may be experiencing and the reasons why.

Talking about other people's feelings also teaches empathy. Young children think the world revolves around them, so it can be an eye-opening experience for them to learn that other people have feelings too. If your child knows that pushing their friend to the ground may make their friend mad and sad, they will be less likely to do it.

Talk About Feelings

Show kids how to use feeling words in their daily vocabulary. Model how to express feelings by taking opportunities to share your feelings. Say, “I feel sad that you don’t want to share your toys with your brother today. I bet he feels sad too.”

Each day, ask your child, “How are you feeling today?” With young children, use a simple chart with smiley faces if that helps them to pick a feeling and then discuss that feeling together. Talk about the types of things that influence your child’s feelings.

Point out when you notice your child is likely feeling a particular feeling. For example, say, “You look really happy that we are going to be eating ice cream,” or “It looks like you are getting frustrated playing with those blocks.”

Teach Coping Strategies

Kids need to learn that just because they feel angry doesn’t mean they can hit someone. Instead, they need to learn anger management skills so they can resolve conflict peacefully. Proactively teach your child how to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

Encourage your child to take a self-timeout. Encourage them to go to their room or another quiet place when they get upset. This can help them calm down before they break a rule and get sent to timeout.

Teach your child healthy ways to deal with sad feelings as well. If your child feels sad that their friend won’t play with them, talk about ways to deal with sad feelings. Often, kids don’t know what to do when they feel sad, so they become aggressive or exhibit attention-seeking behaviors.

Provide Positive Reinforcement

Reinforce good behavior with a positive consequence. Praise your child for expressing emotions in a socially appropriate way by saying things such as, "I really like the way you used your words when you told your sister you were mad at her.”

Another great way to reinforce healthy habits is to use a reward system. For example, a token economy system could help a child practice using healthy coping strategies when they feel angry instead of becoming aggressive.

Model Healthy Choices

If you tell your child to use their words when they're angry but they witness you throw your phone after a dropped call, your words won't be effective. Model healthy ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

Point out times when you feel angry or frustrated and say it out loud. Say, “Wow, I’m angry that car just pulled in front of me.” Then take some deep breaths or model another healthy coping skill so your child can learn to recognize the skills you use when you feel angry.

A Word From Verywell

You're going to need to work with your child on emotions throughout their entire childhood, including the teen years. It's important to continue to have ongoing conversations about how to handle emotions in a healthy way.

When your child makes a mistake, by breaking something out of anger or by giving up when they are frustrated, consider it an opportunity to teach them how to do better next time. Look for teachable moments (and keep in mind there will be plenty of them) to help him find healthy ways to cope with feelings.

1 Source
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  1. Mitrofan O, Paul M, Weich S, Spencer N. Aggression in children with behavioural/emotional difficulties: seeing aggression on television and video games. BMC Psychiatry. 2014;14:287. doi:10.1186/s12888-014-0287-7

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.