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How to help kids express their feelings and the benefits of doing so

As children, many of us were taught to keep quiet, quit crying or simply told that our so-called problems weren’t a big deal. But like adults, kids experience complex feelings; they get frightened, jealous, sad, worried and excited like we do. Oftentimes, we misunderstand a child’s cries as mere tantrums — but it could be his way of expressing how he feels due to a lack of words.

As parents, we should help our children manage and express their feelings in healthy and constructive ways. When we deny a child the chance to express himself, it sends across a message that his feelings are not worthy.

Through childhood, children who learn how to manage their emotions and express themselves in healthy ways are more likely to:

  • Develop positive behaviours and attitudes later in life
  • Display empathy
  • Be supportive of others
  • Perform better in school and work
  • Have positive relationships with self and others
  • Have good mental wellbeing
  • Feel more confident and capable

What you can do to help your child express his feelings

Respond to cues
It’s hard to tell the difference between a tantrum and request in young children, when they are small and vulnerable. The best approach in my opinion is to respond whenever they call you. While our parents and those who belong to older generations believe you will spoil children if you attend to their every need, it’s not the most true. There’s a difference between acknowledging feelings and simply giving in.

If you learn to read cues and respond to them, children will notice that you are listening to them. On the contrary, children left to cry may react badly and become even more difficult as they grow older.

Label and name their feelings
Children go through a flurry of emotions which may be hard for them to identify and pinpoint. You can help by labelling those feelings and emotions for them. For example, “you are sad because mummy can’t be around”, or “it seems you are angry because someone took your favourite toy.” Using pictures, books or videos are a good way to point out various emotions. This is also a good way to explain how to deal with such feelings appropriately.

Naming feelings should come before helping kids to identify them; only when they have an emotional vocabulary then can they talk about their feelings.

Avoid suppressing or neglecting their feelings
As an adult, I’m sure you don’t like it when someone neglects or discredits your feelings — so why would you do the same to a child? Avoid saying things like, “why are you always whining, stop it” or “how dare you lose your temper with me”. This will only lead the child to believe that they are not worthy of attention, resulting in low self esteem and other developmental issues down the road.

Rather, show your little one that you’re available not just through words but also body language. Face them, maintain eye contact and get down to their level — children should at least be deserving of this. Try not to cross your arms and legs or mumble absentmindedly whenever they ask something. Stay present in the moment and respond to every question — essentially it’s like being approachable in a regular conversation with an adult.

Encourage with praise
When your child talks about their feelings or expresses themselves appropriately, reinforce it with some praise or words of encouragement. For example, it could be something as simple as saying, “thank you for letting me know how you feel”, or “mummy knows you are angry, how can we move forward from here?” This shows them that feelings are normal and they are more likely to repeat those actions.

Be a good role model
A lot of our behaviours are learned behaviours; we should know the impact of having a good (or bad) role model. Be the former for your kid. If you don’t already express your feelings appropriately in different situations, I encourage you to do so. This also includes explaining to your child the reason behind being upset with them instead of just giving the cold shoulder.  More often than not, when children have difficulty processing their emotions, chances are, their parents or close caretakers are the same way as well. So don’t be afraid to openly display affection or feelings and show your kid how to deal with them.

Some teaching points

If you’re still clueless about how to go about doing it, here are some tangible and personal tips to help children deal with their feelings in constructive and healthy ways:

  • Take deep breaths
  • Say what they feel instead of acting out
  • Use words to describe how they’re feeling
  • Ask for help or support
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for hugs or cuddles when upset

It takes time and patience, but don’t give up! If you encounter any difficulty, we are here to help.

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28616996/
    Compas, B. E., Jaser, S. S., Bettis, A. H., Watson, K. H., Gruhn, M. A., Dunbar, J. P., Williams, E., & Thigpen, J. C. (2017). Coping, emotion regulation, and psychopathology in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analysis and narrative review. Psychological bulletin, 143(9), 939–991. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000110
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27072682/
    Mathews, B. L., Koehn, A. J., Abtahi, M. M., & Kerns, K. A. (2016). Emotional Competence and Anxiety in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-Analytic Review. Clinical child and family psychology review, 19(2), 162–184. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-016-0204-3