Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers learn about Emotion
You always talk about teaching young children to understand their emotions by giving them words for their feelings. But how do you do that? When do you start? 18 months?
What a great question! How do we teach toddlers and preschoolers the language for their feelings, which helps them learn to manage all those stormy emotions?
1. Label emotions as often as possible by empathizing with your baby's feelings from the earliest ages:
- "Wow! That's cold!"
- "What a big smile! You're happy!"
- "You are so sad, you just need to cry. That's ok, Sweetie, Mom will hold you while you show me those sad feelings."
- "You are so mad! You don't like it when your brother pushes you. You can tell your brother, 'Don't push me!'"
We are already helping kids identify emotions long before 18 months. This happens every time we refer to an emotion. Kids have a huge passive vocabulary by then. Children need to hear words for about six months before they can use the words themselves. So we want to begin using "feeling" words as soon as we begin talking to our babies.
In the same way that we model thanking Aunt Margaret for the present, by holding our child and saying "Josh loves the truck, Auntie, thank you so much!", we use our words on behalf of our child to support him to express his indignant feelings when his brother pushes him: "Alexander, do you see Josh's face? He's telling you that he doesn't like it when you push him."
2. Play "Name that feeling" by making faces at each other and guessing what feeling is being expressed. Little ones love this game, but usually can't play it until they are at least two so they can verbalize the name of the feeling.
3. Play the "If you're happy and you know it" game with different feelings:
- "If you're happy and you know it" - clap your hands
- "If you're mad and you know it" - stomp your foot
- "If you're sad and you know it" - cry a tear
- "If you're hungry and you know it" - rub your tum
- "If you're tired and you know it" - give a yawn
- "If you're antsy and you know it" - jump up and down
- "If you're shy and you know it" - peek through your hands
- "If you're silly and you know it" - giggle and twist
- "If you're loved and you know it" - hug your mom or dad
This game is fun for all ages and has the advantage of helping kids identify the sensations in their body that they will come to know as feelings.
It also give kids ways to handle their big feelings, if you use it to practice:
"If you're mad and you know it, dance it out!" (or blow air out, shake it out, shout it out, etc)
4. Play "Feelings" with stuffed animals. The parent uses the stuffed animals to act out emotions, with the little one telling the parent "I'm MAD!" and acting the part. The parent, of course, responds by accepting his feelings and loving him through them. As my three year old said, holding his train engines: