The following strategies can help children acknowledge, identify, and appropriately express their feelings:
1. Respect children’s feelings. Begin with a premise that children’s feelings are important and that all feelings are healthy.
2. Talk about feelings. Children are full of feelings they don’t have names for. When you acknowledge their feelings and suggest names for them, children learn to recognize them and talk about them, too: “I wonder if you’re feeling frustrated?” Or “It looks like you are really pleased.”
3. Share your own feelings. When we acknowledge and name our own feelings, children’s understanding of feelings broadens.
4. Define and model acceptable forms of expression. Children take their cues from the way we express our feelings. (No matter how many times you tell them to do what you say and not what you do, children will copy your actions. Make them actions you would want to see them do.)
5. Be a witness to your child’s feelings. Stay physically close, as your child shares his happy or difficult feelings, offering a hug, pat on the back, or a hand to hold, as appropriate. Maintain a listening posture. You don’t need to fill up all the space with words but, when appropriate, reflect your child’s feelings: “You sound really mad.” Or “I can tell you are really upset.” Or “You seem so delighted by your new puppy.”
6. Respect nonverbal forms of communication. When children are crying, we often say to them “Tell me how you feel,” or “What’s wrong?” While it is important that we express a willingness to listen, sometimes we demand that children explain their feelings in words before they’re ready.
7. Give it time. Don’t rush in to fix things. Full expression of feelings takes time. Although we may feel “done” with children’s feelings before they do, children need time to find their own resolution.
8. Maintain safety, setting limits when necessary. Sometimes children need your help in keeping themselves and others safe. Excited, happy children may need redirection for their bouncy play. Upset children may need gentle but firm physical holding or moving to a safer environment. These kind of physical limits provide children with a sense of emotional, as well as physical safety.
9. Differentiate between feelings and behavior. It’s possible to stop a behavior such as kicking or hitting while still respecting the feelings that are being expressed. It is often appropriate to suggest alternative outlets to our children. “If you really feel like throwing something, you can throw this pair of socks at the wall.”
10. Distinguish your feelings from your children’s. Sometimes listening to children’s feelings brings up feelings for us. It is important to differentiate your own emotional responses from your child’s, so you can continue to give clear attention to your child.
11. Get support for your own feelings. Listening to children’s feelings is challenging for many parents. Many of us didn’t have anyone who listened to our feelings as children, nor do we have anyone who does it for us now. Being adults, we sometimes think we shouldn’t express sad, frustrated, or angry feelings. We have all kinds of ways to talk ourselves out of expressing our emotions: “It’ll just make things worse if I show my feelings,” “Maybe if I start crying, I’ll never stop,” “I have such a great life, I shouldn’t feel sad,” “I’m a grown-up, I don’t need to cry.” But people of all ages experience a full range of feelings. Our acknowledgement, acceptance, and expression of all of our feelings will allow us to be more responsive to our children’s various emotional expressions.
Different people have different ways to work through their emotions. A few people can do it alone, if they have the time and space, but most of us need another person to help, to sit down with us in a relaxed, calm way and just listen. Some of us have friends, partners, or peer counselors who will do this with us. Others can use spiritual leaders or professional counselors. You and your child both deserve the gift of feelings.
12. Be realistic about what you can do. There will be times, despite our best intentions, when we will not be available to fully listen to children’s feelings. Our own strong feelings may stand in the way. We may be too angry, tired, cranky, or short-tempered. We may be embroiled in a power struggle or unable to step out of the hurt of the moment. We may be in a circumstance where it is not safe to stop and listen. Or we may just not have the ability that day to stop our own momentum to be available for our child.
At those times when it’s hard to listen, there are ways to take breaks from children that don’t make them feel wrong for having their feelings. We can say “It seems like you still need to cry. I’m going to (take a break, go check on your sister, let the dog out). I’ll be back to see how you’re doing in a few minutes.” In this way, we leave children to continue to express their feelings without abandoning them, telling them that their feelings are wrong, or giving them the message that they’ve driven us away.
This list was taken from the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser.
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