Teaching feelings can be a complicated business, especially for young children. But it’s also one of the most rewarding parts of watching your child grow up, make friends, and form deeper bonds with the people around them.
Teaching children about feelings helps them with so many essential tasks — communicating, learning about empathy, as well as understanding their own emotions.
The world of feelings is expansive, though. What feelings are most important for young children to learn?
Teaching Feelings Means Naming Feelings First
Preschool and kindergarten-aged children may feel the same emotions as older children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the vocabulary to articulate those emotions in the same amount of detail.
It’s important for young children to start with learning the basic words to describe emotions. These are emotions they may feel daily or weekly:
The goal is for your child to be able to identify these emotions in themselves and others from facial expressions, body language, or verbal language.
Since these emotions are basic, it’s important for children to have the vocabulary to say how they feel and to begin to understand how others feel.
Of course, this isn’t where a child’s range of emotions starts and stops. There are so many other feelings children can experience based on their environment or situations. Children may feel:
These feelings have a bit more nuance than the earlier list. They are a bit more specific instead of general. For example, if your child feels sad, more specifically, they may be lonely.
Often, multiple emotions mix together to create these feelings (if you’ve ever seen Inside Out, think about the marbles made with a mix of happy and sad emotions).
As your child gets more accustomed to identifying and expressing their basic feelings, you can move on to talking about more complicated feelings.
But how do you effectively practice identifying emotions with your child? Let’s take a look at some effective strategies.
7 Strategies For Teaching Feelings
1) Talk About Feelings In Media
Our communication with other humans is wholly dependent on our ability to communicate with one another.
This means that almost every piece of media your child consumes showcases feelings and conversations about them, which makes them great source material for learning!
During films, TV shows, or while reading, pause to ask your child how they think characters feel. Propose different scenarios and discuss how those situations would impact feelings.
For example, if a character in a book was riding a bike, then fell and scraped their knee, you could ask your child to describe how they think the character felt at that moment. Talk about both what they felt and why they felt it.
2) Playfully Practice Identifying Feelings
It can be hard for young children to identify their own emotions and even harder for them to recognize emotions in others.
That’s why we recommend giving your child playful ways to link vocal tones, facial expressions, and body language to emotional identification.
Experiment by saying sentences with different emotional emphases. Your child will try to pinpoint exactly what emotion you’re trying to convey through a combination of facial expressions, body language, and tone.
For example, you could say, “It’s cold outside” in an animated, angry voice. Then, your child would try to guess your emotion. Repeat the words, but this time change the emotion — be delighted, or nervous, or bored.
Let your child have some fun, too! Encourage them to say something in an emotional voice and let you guess the emotion.
This is a great activity to try while reading, as well. When you read a voice with an expression (“Give me my shoe!” in a loud, angry tone, for instance), ask your child if you had the best voice for the feeling, and then let them try saying what the character said.
3) Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings
Managing so many feelings in one little body can get overwhelming sometimes (we know we’ve been there)! Part of teaching your child about feelings includes teaching them that feelings are perfectly normal.
This goes for positive and negative emotions. The best way to validate your child’s experience and feelings is to acknowledge them!
For example, if you watch a movie together that your child really loved, you could say, “Wow, I think that movie made you really happy because you laughed so much. What was your favorite part?”
We know there will also be times when your child’s feelings of frustration can overwhelm them. If you notice them having a hard time, you could say, “You seem upset that you can’t have a cookie until after dinner. I understand. What can we do to help you feel a bit better?”
This open communication helps your child feel safe, heard, and reassured that their feelings matter.
4) Share Your Feelings And Memories
Emotions are closely linked with memory. Sometimes, playing with your child or doing everyday things at home together may stir up some childhood memories of your own.
This is great, and it’s an even better way to bond with your child and teach them more about feelings!
When you and your child are doing things together, share a memory of when you did something similar as a child.
For example, when eating, you could comment on how certain foods make you feel. “Your grandmother used to make this soup for me when I was sick, so it makes me feel happy, warm, and cared for.”
You can also make this about how you feel in the moment. The point is to acknowledge your feelings honestly and openly with your child so they may learn to do the same.
Maybe you got snippy with your child while speaking earlier and want to apologize. This is a wonderful teaching (and bonding) moment.
You could approach them and say, “I’m sorry I got upset earlier. I am really sad Grandma isn’t here today, and I miss her a lot. I think that’s why I was in a bad mood earlier. I hope you forgive me.”
This shows your child several things:
- You acknowledge and respect their emotions
- You accept responsibility for causing someone else pain
- You acknowledge and respect your emotions
- You know it is important to communicate your feelings
These are all invaluable lessons for kids to learn!
5) Use Puppets Or Toys To Act Out Emotions
Sometimes talking about feelings can feel like an interrogation, especially for children who are on the shyer side. This is where puppet play can come in handy.
Use puppets to uncover more about what your child feels, as well as to teach feelings. Together you can act out different scenarios and discuss why the puppets might react in specific ways based on the circumstances.
If you think something may be bothering your child, you can use puppets as an indirect, safe mode of conversation.
You might even find that your child is more comfortable presenting their emotions through a puppet character rather than direct communication.
This is perfectly OK! It helps you learn more about their emotions, too, and gives you another opportunity to reassure your child that their feelings are nothing to be ashamed of.
6) Praise Emotional Language
When your child successfully and accurately describes their feelings, give them lots of positive affirmation. This applies to both their emotions and demonstrations of empathy toward others.
7) Teach Healthy Emotional Expression
Learning how to identify emotions is one thing, but how do children learn exactly how to communicate their feelings? This is where “I feel” statements are beneficial.
Teach your child that when they want to speak up about their emotions, they can start by saying, “I feel …” and filling in the blanks. This way, whoever is listening knows they are about to receive important emotional information.
When your child’s emotions are more intense and conversation isn’t the most accessible tool for them at the moment, encourage them to practice “mindfulness techniques.”
These are techniques to teach them to pay attention to their body and slowly release powerful emotions.
These mindfulness techniques include:
- Cuddling with something soft in a quiet room
- Playing with tactile items like PlayDoh
- Taking deep, “square” breaths (inhale, hold, exhale, rest)
Don’t be afraid to model yourself as an example!
Parents with healthy emotional expressions can teach their children first-hand that feelings are natural, powerful, and an important part of the human experience at any age.
Reap The Rewards Of Teaching Feelings
Emotions are an inherently sensitive topic, which means teaching feelings to your child will take some time, patience, and practice. But we know that the payoff will be monumental to your and your child’s relationship, as well as their friendships with others.
There may be times when your child is hesitant to deep-dive into emotional conversations or activities. This is understandable — emotions are complicated!
At times like that or when you just need an extra helping hand around the house, we suggest trying out our Learn & Grow app or Explore Feelings Kit. Our personalized products include activities for your child’s emotional learning, as well as their skills in math, reading, and more!