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How to Help a Child Understand Their Feelings

Emotions are hard enough to understand for us as adults, but for children, it can be nearly impossible. They can appear or change suddenly and for no apparent reason. They can be exaggerated or mild compared to what triggered them. They can lead to unexpected reactions that lead to further emotions. And they can be confusing. Children struggling to understand these emotions will often react to them in a way that we cannot understand and sometimes this leads to consequences that are not fair to the child nor teach the child how to cope with their emotions. So how can we help them understand? A few simple steps can improve a child’s ability to understand, control, and express their emotions appropriately and successfully, improving their emotional well being substantially.

  1. Identify the emotions: the first step is labeling the emotion. Putting a label or name to it can make it feel less confusing or intimidating to a child who is overwhelmed by something that they don’t understand. It also serves to help the child know that you see what they are feeling and are trying to understand them, helping them to feel validated. The goal in continuing to do this is to teach them to be able to identify the emotions on their own and eventually be able to express what they feel before becoming overwhelmed with it.
  2. Help them express them verbally: when emotions become overwhelming to a child, they may act out. The acting out, while troubling, is a form of expressing the emotion and sometimes the only way they know how. Talking the situation through with a child can help them understand what they feel and why they feel it. This also teaches them to express the emotion before acting out, reducing the negative impact of the emotion and assisting them in getting their emotional needs met.
  3. Help them make connections to triggers: understanding what causes the emotion helps understand the emotion. Unfortunately the confusing nature of emotions often masks what triggered it and therefore only leads to the confusion a child may feel when emotions are intense. Reviewing the events leading up to the emotional outburst may assist them in connecting the dots. Its important to do this in a calm, empathetic, and comforting manner to be the most effective. Making these connections helps the child to feel some sense of control over their emotions and lessens the feelings of them being unpredictable or overwhelming.
  4. Validate their emotions: validation is the number one most important act when helping a child or adult cope with emotions. You do not have to understand or agree with an emotion to validate it. Rather than trying to tell them not to feel a way, it’s telling them that you can see why or understand why they might feel that way. For example, stating “I see that you are scared and can understand why this might be scary for you.” Then reassure them that they are safe. A child feeling scared will not be able to hear that they are safe until their feelings are acknowledged and validated. Validation will also encourage further sharing of their emotions because they now see that they matter to you and will be received in an encouraging way.
  5. Model healthy emotional expression: expressing your emotions appropriately, explaining why you feel the way you do, reducing emotional outbursts, and allowing your child to see you feel intense emotions when appropriate will give them the foundation to learn how to express their emotions and feel safe doing so. People learn best through example, so it is vital to show them the skills you want them to be able to learn and master.
  6. Remain calm for them: the last thing a child experiencing overwhelming emotions needs is to see the adult they are trusting to help them react in an extreme or overwhelming manner. The calmer you stay, the more reassuring you will be to them. Your calm nature will help neutralize their reaction as well as allow them to feel safe. Remaining calm also allows you to be present in their emotion and help them to sit with it, teaching them the valuable skill of feeling and coping with their emotions.
  7. Problem solve if necessary: only once the initial emotional reaction is settled, helping them to problem solve events leading up to the emotional outburst can be helpful and appropriate. This can help them to understand why the feel the way they do and then learn how to cope with similar events in the future. It can help them learn to problem solve on their own, despite emotions, rather than allow the emotion to overtake them first. It teaches them a vital skill while helping them to feel validated in their emotions when done in the proper timing and way.
  8. Reassure them: make sure that they know you will always be there for them and that you love them no matter what. Let them know that things will be okay and praise what they did well in coping with and expressing the emotion. Remind them that it will be better next time and that dealing with difficult emotions takes practice but is a skill that they have the ability to learn and master.

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