8 ways to help children learn about emotions

11 July 2018

Dear friends,

Identifying, understanding and responding to the emotions of others are very important social skills for all of us to have. These skills help us to understand and develop relationships with other people.

I have previously explored the stereotype of autistic people not feeling or showing emotion. I believe that it is not the feeling of the emotion that is missing in my son, rather the ability to reason with or explain it.

Research in the Autism Research Group at City University London, and that of many other labs across the world, shows clearly that autistic people do have feelings.

Individuals with ASD  express, as well as experience, their emotions differently, it is not the case that they lack emotions altogether.

Most of us learned skills such as how to “read” other people’s facial expressions, tones of voice and/or body gestures very easily and naturally when we were very young. We learned through social interactions with peers, parents and other adults. We somehow picked up this important social information without it being explicitly taught to us.

For some children, identifying and understanding emotions does not come so easily. That was certainly true for our son. He found it difficult to read nonverbal cues (facial expressions, the movements of the body body language or tone of voice). Without being able to correctly identify and understand the emotions of others, you are more likely to respond inappropriately.

We had to teach emotions explicitly and very clearly and we continue to have an ongoing dialogue about emotions.

8 ways to help children learn about emotions

  1. Help children to build their feelings vocabulary. Get into the habit of naming the feelings your child is experiencing. For example, if your child runs up to you and hugs you as you walk through the door, you can say something like “someone is excited to see me” or “someone is happy I’m home.”  
  2. Read books. There are many books that investigate emotions but you can discuss emotions when reading most story books to your child, discuss how the characters in the story are feeling, discuss how the characters feelings change in the story. Ask them how would you feel if that happened to you?
  3. Use games and activities. We used an emotions kit supplied by the psychologist and played emotions snap. See also: 30 activities and printable to teach emotions to kids.
  4. Watch Inside out. This is a brilliant film and it describes the emotions really well. Many children are visual learners and using video can play to their strengths. Make sure you discuss the film's themes afterwards to strengthen the connections.
  5. Talk about behaviour. Let your child know how their behavior might make others feel. For example, “When you called your sister names, she felt sad and her feelings were hurt. “ This will help your child be mindful of what they say and do to others. You can follow up by asking how they would feel if someone did the same thing to them. This will help to develop empathy.
  6. Model appropriate ways to express feelings to your child.  It’s important that children learn that it is OK to have their feelings and having the self-control to express your feelings appropriately is no easy feat but it is important to remember that our children copy our behaviours. Model the behaviours you want to see.
  7. Praise your child when they use words to express their feelings.  When your child tells you how they are feeling instead of having a melt down or tantrum, praise them for doing so. Be very specific. For example, “I like how you told your sister that you were sad when she called you names. That was very grown-up of you.” Praising your child for practicing good behavior makes them more likely to do it again in the future. 
  8. Teach your child different ways to act on feelings. Like:
  • Ask for help
  • Solve problems with words
  • Say it, don’t do it (say “I am mad” instead of throwing toys)
  • Tell a grown-up
  • Take a deep breath
  • Describe what you are feeling
  • Walk away
  • Ask for a hug

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