“My feelings are too loud for words and too shy for the world.” —Dejan Stojanovic
Many parents of young children and teens express one burning desire: that their kids be more emotionally expressive. However, it is vital to understand that there are physiological reasons why children may find it harder to express and regulate their emotions. One is the fact that their brain is still under development and the reasoning part of their brain (the prefrontal cortex) is still very much in development. As such, they rely more on the amygdala, which controls are wide range of emotions. As a result, they may respond more emotionally to a situation, yet find it harder to find words to express their emotions. Having said that, there is plenty that parents can do to empower their kids to understand and express their emotions clearly. Read on to discover a few useful strategies.
Children and teens can have a limited vocabulary when it comes to expressing emotions, simply because they may not be aware of the subtleties or intensities that each emotion can have. A good place to start when it comes to helping them know their emotional states better is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (created by Psychologist, Robert Plutchik). This wheel (which you can access online and print out using a colored printer) shows that there are eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. However, each of these basic emotions has more and less intense versions. For instance, very intense anger can be described as “rage,” while a lighter version of anger is “annoyance.” You can encourage your child to start using a journal and to list down situations in which they might feel specific emotions. As they get used to using the wheel, they will find it easier to define their emotions with greater precision.
Practice How Feelings Can Be Expressed
Once your child knows the different intensities of emotions they feel, it is also vital to give them the tools they need to openly express their thoughts and emotions. You can engage in various activities to practice clear expression. These include role-playing situations involving emotions like anger, frustration, or joy. Your child may enjoy it if you video these sessions and watch them back together. You can point out how the tone and speed of your voices, and the body language you use, can help to bring home a point. You can also teach your child set phrases to use to express how they feel. Highlight the value of using phrases like “When you do/say this… I feel” instead of “You always” or “You never.” The last two phrases make others defensive, while the first focuses on the speaker and is likely to generate more interest and empathy.
Use Storybooks to Expand Their Understanding of Emotions
Storybooks are an excellent way to talk about people’s emotions and foster empathy in children. Read stories together and pause often to ask how the characters must be feeling, and encourage your child to explain why characters may have acted the way they did. Choose books that are specifically centered on emotions if possible. Top choices include Baby Happy Baby Sad by Leslie Patricelli (for kids aged 0 to 3), The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions by Anna Llenas (for readers aged 4 to 8), and Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia (for kids aged 8 to 12). For teens, one highly renowned work is The Teens Self-Regulation Workbook: Empowering Teens to Understand, Handle, and Master their Emotions by Vivian Foster.
Being a Great Role Model
Children learn from what they observe at home, so make it a point to express your own emotions—with all their intricacies, subtleties, and (at times) contradictions. When people express themselves at home, aim to encourage acceptance and openness, and to avoid judgment or criticism. Even when your child is expressing emotions intensely, remain calm and teach them emotional regulation strategies such as controlled breathing when they are feeling stressed, or mindful meditation when they are worried about an upcoming test or challenge.
Kids and teens can find it hard to find the words they need to express themselves. Parents can help by giving them handy tools like Plutchik’s wheel and encouraging them to journal how specific situations make them feel. Fictional works can also be a fantastic way to discuss emotions without necessarily making them personal. Finally, parents can serve as excellent role models for the value of sharing and regulating emotions.