Where—and when?—do you start?
Whether they’re flopping onto the floor in protest, defiantly slamming their bedroom door, or giving you the silent treatment, kids are almost always expressing their feelings. But how they do it is what matters: Punching a sibling? Not so helpful. Talking about the fact they want to sock their sib? That’s progress.
“Learning how to express your emotions is a step along the road to learning how to become a functional adult,” said Sam Goldstein, PhD., author of Tenacity in Children: Nurturing the Seven Instincts for Lifetime Success.
From testy two-year-olds to temperamental tweens, here are some tips on how to help kids express their feelings at every age (according to experts):
Teaching Toddlers To Express Their Feelings (Ages 1-4)
Take it from Goldstein: Toddlers are all about their feelings. “Kids under 4 all look like they have bipolar disorder because they’re driven by emotion,” joked the neuropsychologist, who sees more than 500 kids a year at his Salt Lake City clinic.
Not only are these little people feeling all their emotions in the biggest way possible—but they also don’t yet have the tools to express their feelings in a way we grownups deem appropriate. “Children have an experience; then they have an emotional reaction. Early on, it’s ‘‘I’m either happy or I’m not happy,” Goldstein said.
Add that to the fact most kids lack impulse control, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for big reactions like hitting, crying, and tantrums.
According to Bryana Kappadakunnel, a licensed marriage and family therapist and perinatal mental health specialist in Los Angeles, “Toddlers are up against an internal drive for independence, limited impulse control, and a streak of possessiveness—all of which makes this job tougher, but not impossible. With time, patience, and consistent nurturing, parents can actively teach their toddlers how to identify and express their emotions.”
Some tips to get toddlers talking:
Validate your child’s emotions. No matter how small things may seem to you, try to empathize with your child’s feelings. “You can say, ‘I can see that you’re feeling sad because your toy broke. It’s okay to feel that way,’” said Goldstein.
Read board books about emotions daily. Kappadakunnel recommends The Way I Feel, Todd Parr’s Feelings books, and Calm Down Time as great books to teach little kids about emotions (and how to handle them).
Name YOUR feelings. The way you handle your emotions may be the best teacher of all. Say things like “I’m feeling frustrated!” and model the skill you’re going to use to help: “I’m going to take a deep breath and count to 5 before I do anything else.” This helps kids learn effective ways of dealing with their feelings.
Get on your child’s level (literally). If your child seems resistant, Kappadakunnel recommends getting down on one knee and speaking slowly and clearly to your child since “too many words at once can be overwhelming to toddlers.”
It’s OK if you don’t know what to say. If you’re feeling stumped on what to say to help your child, Kappadakunnel recommends saying, “Something feels really big inside. I’m here for you.”
If they can’t express their feelings in words, try this game. Abigail Wald, whose unconventional parenting advice and coaching program has helped more than 10,000 families, has a genius solution for young kids who have a hard time expressing their feelings. “Put up both your hands and say, ‘If you’re feeling like this, touch this hand; if you’re feeling like that, press this hand.’ This makes it a game; you’re making it fun to express themselves, and they don’t have to use words—they can speak in actions,” she said.
Teaching Kids Ages 5-9 to Express Their Feelings
By around age 5, most kids have a basic understanding of what they’re supposed to do when asked to express their feelings, but their newfound sense of independence—plus a stubborn streak common among kids this age—might get in the way.
Some tips to get kinder/elementary-aged kids talking:
Find the right time. You might be ready for a heart-to-heart, but it doesn’t mean your kids are. Try to find a time when kids may be open to talking. Here’s a hint: It probably won’t be right after school when most kids need to decompress. Bedtime often works since there are fewer distractions, and kids are usually more relaxed.
Wait until your kids are calm. You can’t talk to a child (of any age) about their feelings when they’re mid-fit. Wait until the child is calm (you can even wait until much later, like bedtime) to bring up what they might have been feeling. For example: “I noticed earlier you were only upset when I dropped you off at school. What’s up?”
Regulate YOUR emotions in front of your kids. If you want your kids to deal with their emotions effectively, you should do the same—and do it in front of them! That means try not to lose your temper, and if you do, explain why and what you were feeling.
Resist the urge to negate their feelings. Often, our first response as parents when our children say something negative is to immediately say something to make the child feel better: Your kid says, “I don’t have any friends;” you shoot back, “Yes, you do!”
But Goldstein said parents should resist this urge to contradict their child’s feelings. “If I’m a child expressing my feelings to a parent and the parent shuts me down, the first thing I learn is that they’re not listening to me, and the second thing I learn is that I’m not going to tell them anything negative anymore because they don’t want to hear it.” Instead, he suggests saying something like, “Yeah, no one likes to feel that way. I can help you with it.”
Name the child’s emotion without telling them how they’re feeling: Help your child recognize what they’re feeling without telling them directly. Use phrases like “It seems like you’re worried,” or, “I think it upset you when Jonnie picked up your shovel.” Then wait to see what they say.
“We can help children understand that feelings give rise to action or behavior. Say things like, ‘You must have been very angry if you threw a block at your sister,‘ and follow up with, ‘Do you remember what made you angry?‘” said Ted Hutman, a developmental psychologist in Los Angeles.
Tell stories to relate with your child. It helps kids to know you can relate to their feelings—so Hutman recommends telling stories about times you’ve felt similar big emotions (you can do this long after your child has expressed an emotion). For instance, if your child is upset about how a friend treated them, tell a story about a time in your life when a friend hurt you—and how you handled it.
Practice perspective-taking. Find opportunities to discuss how other people may be feeling, Hutman said. This can be done while you’re reading to your child (“How do you think this character felt when that happened?”) or when your child tells you about something that happened at school (“What do you think your friend felt when she forgot to dress up for Pajama Day?”).
Realize your child may already be expressing herself. Did your child storm off to her room and slam that door? Sometimes, that says enough. “If a child storms off, that may actually be a healthy response,” said Wald, founder of the Mother Flipping Awesome podcast and parent support program. “She may be a child who has big feelings, and storming off may actually be a loving and self-protective mechanism whereby they are not ready to talk—so you wait. It doesn’t have to get dealt with in the moment.”
Teaching Teens and Tweens to Express Their Feelings (Ages 9-14)
Moody much? Teens and tweens run the gamut when it comes to self-expression: Some will gab away endlessly; others won’t say a word. But remember: Even ignoring you is a form of expression in itself. So get out your detective cap, look for clues into how your child is feeling, and figure out innovative ways to get them to open up.
Some tips for getting teens and tweens talking:
Tell your story. If your teen or tween doesn’t want to talk about her feelings, “that’s absolutely fine,” said Wald. “You can talk about yours. They will likely moan and groan and roll their eyes but they ARE listening,” said Wald.
Focus on solutions:
Want to get a teenager to open up? Make it worth their while. Make it clear that a conversation may lead to a desired change. Goldstein recommends what he calls the G.R.O.W. approach:
- Ask your child, “What is the Goal—What are you trying to accomplish? “I want to stay up later.”
- Ask, “What’s the Reality?” I have school tomorrow.
- Ask, “What Options do we have?” Let’s write some things down, like, ‘If you go to bed every night during the week, you can stay up later on the weekends.”
- Find a Way forward. Let’s pick a solution and see if it works better for you.
Set a timer. If you’ve got a kid who doesn’t like to talk, sometimes having a set time for talking (about anything!) works. Tell your child the conversation will end when the 5-minute timer goes off—and follow through. These short conversations don’t have to be deep—asking questions about the day works as a start.
Talk to them on THEIR schedule. “Just because we want to understand what’s going on with somebody doesn’t mean it’s the right time for them to share that with us,” Wald said.
Hint: Try to find a time to talk when your teen/tween is relaxed and not in the middle of something. This could be at bedtime (away from siblings), during a long car drive, or while walking the dog.
Change the scenery. There’s a reason child psychologists spend most of their sessions playing board games with kids: Children (and teens) are more likely to open up if they’re relaxed and having fun. So try mixing things up. Wald recommends going for a walk, taking a drive, or playing a game outside.
Recognize that not everyone likes to talk about feelings. For some people, talking helps. For others, it does the opposite. “I think we have to respect that this culture of talking about our feelings is not true for everybody. For some people, it feels as good as standing on a high wire if you fear heights. It’s not comforting; it’s almost traumatizing,” said Wald.