Using Emotional Language: How to Talk to Your Kids About Feelings
Jan 17, 2019
Talking about feelings sounds simple, but can actually be quite difficult. We often assume this skill will develop naturally; however, many children need a lot of practice to grow comfortable talking about how they feel, especially in the moment. Below are some ways to begin helping your child use emotional language.
Model Talking About Your Feelings
Using specific words to describe your own anger, sadness or happiness can better help children understand feelings. While you may be worried this will teach your children to be afraid or concerned, using emotional language actually makes it okay to talk about feelings and leads to more positive coping. To do this, state your feeling and pair it with a coping strategy.
Old way: “Oh no, I didn’t win!”
New way: “I’m sad that I didn’t win the game, I’m going to give you a hug to feel better”
Old way: “David, give him the toy back!”
New way: “I’m mad that your brother took your toy, I’m going to tell him he needs to give it back”
Some of our feelings are about adult issues, such as difficulty paying the bills. This is not as appropriate to talk with children about, but you can tailor our statement to be more kid-friendly.
Old way: “I don’t have enough money to pay rent.”
New way: “I’m frustrated with this math problem, I need to take a walk”
Summarize Your Child’s Feelings
If your child is not used to saying how he or she feels, help them describe and label their feelings. When they feel mad, and hear you say they feel mad, they will start to put this association together. After hearing these statements repeated, your child will more easily be able to say what they are feeling. After you’ve labeled the emotion, encourage them to state it to practice saying it.
New way: “You look like you are mad because you are frowning and stomping your feet.”
Summarize Story and Video Characters Feelings
For extra practice talking about feelings, labeling how characters from books or movies are feeling can be helpful.
“Wow, Winnie the Pooh looks like his feelings were hurt, how do you think he is feeling?”
“The tiger looks like he is feeling embarrassed, his head is down and his cheeks are red. What should he do?”
Practice Talking About Feelings
Children are more likely to use feeling language in-the-moment if prompted to practice as often as possible. Instead of asking general questions, try asking specific feelings-oriented question:
Old way: “How was your day?”
New way: “Tell me something that made you happy or proud today,” or “What made you worried today?”
Encourage them to use the feeling and the cause in the full sentence.
Old way: “I got to pass out papers”
New way: “I felt proud that I helped my teacher”
Old way: “Math is stupid”
New way: “I feel worried about the math test tomorrow”
It is equally important to talk about feelings of happiness as it is to talk about times of sadness or worry. As your child continues to practice, they will grow in their ability to use more complicated emotional words – such as frustration, pride, disappointment and concern.
Allow Your Child to Have Feelings
It is difficult to not fix children’s problems. As soon as they say their train is stuck on the track, you want to help them move it. Instead, use these opportunities to help them recognize their feelings and help themselves cope.
“It looks like you feel frustrated that the train isn’t going through the tunnel. Can you tell me if you are frustrated?”
“Yes, that is frustrating when you are trying to do something and it doesn’t work. What can we try to do next?”
Empowering your child to say how they feel and understand that it is okay to feel that way is one of the strongest ways you can prepare them for difficult situations in life.
By modeling, labeling and practicing talking about your child’s feelings, they will grow in their ability to recognize how they are feeling and be able to communicate it to you. As your child gets older, this will help them cope and problem-solve difficult situations.
If you and your child would like more help managing sadness, anger or worry please don’t hesitate to ask for help.
For more information about Nationwide Children's Hospital’s Big Lots Behavioral Health Services, click here.
Dr. Nicole Dempster is a licensed pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital and is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University. Dr. Dempster specializes in helping children and their families cope with chronic illness. She obtained her PhD from Kent State University.
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