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 understand?
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 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).
Teaching kids about feelings can be complicated when you’re working with younger children who have a limited vocabulary. But there are numerous benefits to talking about emotions and how to process them from a very young age.
Let’s take a look at some of these below.
Benefits Of Teaching Children About Feelings
Teaching children about their feelings and how to manage them is essential for both their physical and mental wellbeing.
We all go through ups and downs in life, and understanding our feelings puts us in a better place to navigate obstacles in a focused, calm, and purposeful way.
When we talk about teaching children about feelings, we mean walking them through how to understand their full range of emotions.
This is a very important point because, as parents, we sometimes make the mistake of focusing only on happiness as an acceptable feeling to express.
Of course, we want our children to be happy. But focusing on this one emotion and not recognizing and acknowledging the others may unintentionally send the wrong message to your child. They may begin to believe that any other feelings are wrong.
Jealousy, sadness, anger, and other emotions are natural parts of our human experience. That’s why it’s essential to speak openly about different feelings so that children know how to identify them and aren’t afraid to express them in a healthy way.
In addition to embracing different emotions as healthy and good, teaching children feelings can help with other parts of growth and development as well.
Here are a few additional ways that understanding emotions can benefit children.
Promoting Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence can be referred to as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.”
An emotionally intelligent person has many great qualities, including self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills.
While these qualities don’t develop overnight, the more you speak to your child about feelings and how to manage them, the more it helps your child increase their emotional intelligence over time.
Feelings like anger, frustration, and jealousy can be very intense for children (and adults!). As we discussed above, we can’t shield our children from these emotions because they are a part of the human experience.
So, how can you help your child navigate them?
Talk to your child about what they’re feeling in the moment, and allow them to openly share what’s on their mind. Being a non-judgmental sounding board can create a safe environment and a teachable moment when your child needs it the most.
When kids learn not to fight their emotions, anxiety and stress can be reduced or eliminated.
As parents, it’s sometimes hard to tell what our children are going through deep down. Tantrums, defiance, or aggressive behavior are not always clear indications of the underlying problem.
While these behaviors are a normal part of growing up and processing emotions, they often occur when a child feels overwhelmed and can’t healthily articulate what’s going on in their mind.
But when your child is familiar with identifying different types of feelings and what they mean, they will have an easier time talking to you about whatever problem they might be having, and you’re more equipped to handle the situation.
When Should You Start Teaching Kids About Feelings?
Sometimes, parents delay teaching kids about their emotions because they think the language is too complicated to understand.
For example, how do you teach a two-year-old that their tantrum is not about wanting to stay home from school but, rather, from feeling overwhelmed or scared?
The reality is that emotions are ingrained in us from birth. Babies are content when they’re warm and fed; they are anxious if they feel abandoned because a parent turns away; they are scared when they’re hungry.
No one teaches us these feelings, but we often learn how to cope with or experience our feelings by watching others
Children observe the way we, as adults, communicate about everything, especially how we feel. By talking about our emotions in front of them, we can help them learn how to talk about their own feelings, too.
Another way to teach kids about feelings, especially younger children, is through reading. Here are some of our favorite books on this topic:
- My Body Sends A Signal (4-6 Years)
- Little Monkey Calms Down (2-4 Years)
- Making Faces: A First Book Of Emotions (1-3 Years)
- In My Heart: A Book Of Feelings (2-4 Years)
- Grumpy Monkey (3-7 Years)
Whether you use these books to introduce healthy emotions to your child or you simply talk to them about how they’re feeling, it’s important to start with simple 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 because you missed talking to Grandma today. I understand. What can we do to help you feel 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.
Now that we’ve looked at the importance of teaching feelings to kids, let’s get into some effective activities you can use to practice identifying these emotions at home.
4 Activities To Teach Feelings
1) Story Stones
What You’ll Need:
- Acrylic paint (or sharpies)
What To Do:
The goal of this activity is simple: Use the paint to give each of the rocks a different face!
For example, your child could draw one rock smiling, one with a sad mouth, another one with a silly tongue sticking out, and another with a big surprised face!
Once your child has finished their masterpieces, allow the paint to dry and then take a moment to talk about the emotions on the stones. You can even have them pick up each stone and mimic the face they see while identifying the represented emotion.
Walk them through this activity by using easy-to-understand language and your own examples, such as:
This stone shows crying eyes. This stone is sad. I was sad when we moved houses because I loved our previous home. When I’m sad, I sometimes cry and feel down. Do you ever get sad?
This is a great way to give your child a visual representation of different emotions and encourages them to share when they may have felt that specific way.
2) Paper Plate Emotion Masks
What You’ll Need:
- Paper plates
- A sharpie
- Popsicle sticks (or tongue depressors)
- Clear tape
What To Do:
Start by cutting your paper plates in half. Then, write different emotions on the back of each plate (e.g., happy, angry, silly, sad, etc.). For younger children who are just beginning to read, you can assist them with reading each word as you go.
On the front of the paper plates, create a face that represents that feeling. For example, if the mask has “sad” written on the back, then the drawing can be of a frown.
After making each face, hold the paper plates up one at a time and talk about what each of these emotions means. Again, make sure to use real-life, easy-to-understand examples so your child can grasp the concepts.
The last step is to tape popsicle sticks onto the back of the paper plates so that you have emotion masks. Your child can then share their own examples of each emotion while holding up the correct face.
Similar to Story Stones, Paper Plate Emotion Masks are an excellent way to teach and discuss feelings with children visually. It’s also hands-on, which allows kids to be fully engaged as they learn about self-expression.
3) Emotional Charades
What You’ll Need:
- Small pieces of paper
- A marker
- A hat (or small bag)
What To Do:
As the name suggests, this activity is all about playing charades with emotions as the clues.
Start by writing different emotions on your pieces of paper, and then fold them and place them in a hat or bag. Next, have the first player pick one slip of paper, read it quickly to themselves, and act out that feeling. The other players then need to guess which emotion is being portrayed.
This activity is a fun way to introduce emotions to kids in a lighthearted manner. It also helps children grasp that one emotion can be expressed in different ways. For example, if the clue is “sad,” the person acting it out can have a sad face, or they can pretend to cry.
Tip: If your child hasn’t learned how to read yet, you can draw a simple image of the emotion under the word on each piece of paper to help them out.
If you have enough players, this can also be a great game to play with teams. The first team to get five points wins!
4) Emotional Musical Chairs
What You’ll Need:
- Index cards
- A marker
What To Do:
Musical chairs is a common game that brings lots of fun and laughter. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a brief explanation:
Players start by standing around a circle of chairs. There should be one chair less than the number of players participating. (For example, if there are five players, there should be four chairs.)
When the music starts playing, the players walk around the perimeter of the chair circle. Once the music stops, each player rushes to find a chair to sit in, and the player left standing is out!
After this first round, remove another chair and continue repeating this pattern until you have a winner (one person left).
Emotional Musical Chairs is similar, except that each chair has a different emotion written on an index card attached to it. The number of chairs is equal to the people participating, which means that when the music stops, everyone will find a chair, and no one is out.
Here’s a breakdown of how emotional music chairs works:
- Players gather in a circle around the chairs marked with different emotions
- When the music starts, they start walking around the perimeter of the circle
- When the music stops, players quickly find a seat
- Each player then reads the emotion card they’re sitting on and gives a situation that made them feel that way. For example, if the emotion is “happy,” the player can say, “I feel happy when it’s Friday because that’s when we get pizza, and I love pizza!”
Using this fun activity, children get to share their understanding of each emotion while also moving around and burning off energy. It’s a great way to talk about feelings without making things awkward or uncomfortable.
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!
The Learn with Sesame Street app is an effective tool that helps kids learn and develop their social and emotional skills. With the help of their Sesame Street friends, kids learn how to express their emotions, empathize with others, and create healthy relationships. Explore the Learn with Sesame Street app today!