As a parent, this can be much easier said than done. You might not be used to talking about feelings so openly yourself. You might have tried to protect your child from difficult feelings as far as possible. Some children might squirm and resist efforts to talk about tricky feelings. Sometimes these things can just be really hard to talk about.
Yet we also know how important it can be to support a child’s emotional understanding and expression. Not only does it support their ability to identify, label and make sense of their feelings, it also gives a clear message that it is OK to have different feelings. It teaches children that letting someone know how they are feeling can be helpful; they don’t have to hide away, bottle things up or try to manage things by themselves. For those children who struggle to calm down or manage their mood, supporting their emotional literacy is often the first step towards them developing strategies for staying well-regulated.
So how can you start to introduce these conversations?
- Introduce different words for feelings and emotions. Start using these in day to day conversations, not just in relation to your child’s experiences but in making sense of yours with your child.
- Try to find words which make sense to your child; fun or descriptive words. For example, ‘fizzy’ for overly excited or agitated, ‘butterflies’ for worry or a ‘volcano’ to talk about temper tantrums.
- Make sure to be clear all feelings are acceptable; how we respond to them might need some work but we cannot control our emotional responses to things. Demonstrating acceptance and curiosity about feelings can help give children a clear sense that emotions are important, can be made sense of, and shared.
- When talking about more tricky feelings like anger, try to separate it out from your child to reduce feelings of shame. For example, “you couldn’t do what you wanted to do which is really hard. It looked like you got lots of angry feelings in your body” or for older children “its rubbish when you can’t do what you want to do, I sometimes get really mad when that happens; how about you?”.
- Talk about difficult feelings once everyone has calmed down
- Have family conversations about feelings; who laughs the most, who shouts the loudest, how do you know when Mummy is cross, what does Daddy do when he’s upset?
- Remember that feeling angry and out of control is a horrible feeling! If your child was standing in front of you brimming with sadness and tears, how would you respond? With sympathy and understanding? Try and hold this in mind when faced with your child who is filled with rage. Sympathy and understanding can go a long way towards calming a child down.
- Make sure your child knows that you love them no matter what. This will help give them permission to talk about difficult things.
- Even young children can understand a lot about feelings and behaviours if given the right support to talk about them. Make sure to take it slowly, pitching things at their level and giving examples of what you mean as you go. Show them what you noticed on their face (model the facial expression) and make use of pictures or emoticons if needed.
- Older children and teenagers might take a bit more encouragement to open-up. The key message here is to keep trying! Pick your moment wisely; when they are ready, not when you are. Starting off by text, or talking in the car when you won’t be making direct eye contact can be helpful to some.
- Make sure you’re listening to what they have to say rather than going in for the lecture! Genuine curiosity and going at a pace they feel comfortable with is crucial.
- Remember that some children just might not know how they are feeling or why they are feeling it. They might be just as bemused as you so avoid those repeated ‘but why?’ questions and try to brainstorm with them instead. Talking is the key, not always finding an answer.