Teaching children to appropriately express their feelings is tied not only to developing beneficial lifelong social skills but to mental and physical health. The foundation for learning how to express one’s feelings starts with a strong foundation of a loving environment in early childhood.
Learning how to appropriately express feelings begins with parental acknowledgement of feelings as valid. When parents are approachable and take their children’s emotional pain seriously, this creates an environment where children are not afraid to express themselves and have no need to shut down or “stuff” their emotions which can cause a variety of problems later on.
The first step is to encourage children to talk is to listen. Avoid trying to fix or explain away the pain rather than just listening. Rushing to fix a situation can gloss over the core issue. Remember to show empathy before explanation. Empathy is seeing the situation from the child's point of view. For example, if your child came to you crying and saying he had a bad dream, don't rush to fix the problem. Acknowledge your child's fear first, let him express it and talk about what scared him in the dream. Only after some time, then you can explain that it was only a dream. Skipping the first step of empathy devalues the child's emotions and experience.
Be present in the moment, not distracted if your child is trying to tell you about his feelings. Working with feelings can be uncomfortable. Do your best to listen with empathy even if you can’t relate to the intensity of the emotion. That dead butterfly can be earth shattering to your child. Give him some space to express that pain and know that you will lovingly support him.
Parents should help children learn to identify and name their feelings. This can be accomplished by simply helping the child name the feeling by saying something like “You look frustrated because you’re having trouble putting on your shoe.” Help your child develop a vocabulary for feelings: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, shy, bored, lonely, etc.. There are many books for children about feelings such as The Way I Feel by Janan Cain, The Blue Day Book by Bradley Trevor Greive, The Feelings Book by Todd Parr, Hands are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi, Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Cheri J. Meiners.
It is vital for children to learn appropriate ways to not only talk about their feelings but to have an outlet for the energy of them as well. It’s not OK for children to scream or say mean or inappropriate things to people because they are upset or angry. If your child screams at you, then you should let him/her know by saying “I’ll be happy to hear what you have to say after you calm down.” Teach appropriate outlets to “blow off steam” in order to give physical expression to the energy of the emotion. Work with your child to find what works for him/her (and is acceptable to you) such as hit a pillow, scream into a pillow, run around the yard or push hands on the wall or tree. Many of the books listed above have some great ideas for dealing with anger or frustration. Help your child transition to positive mood changers, but not too quickly. Trying to rush the process of venting can leave unresolved tension. Mood lifters can include listening and singing to music, dancing, drawing or reading. Any kind of fun activity can change the mood into something more positive.
Teach children how to communicate their feelings with other children and their siblings. Many Montessori classrooms teach a method of conflict resolution often referred to as an “I-message” and follows a basic formula of stating “I feel ____ when you do _____”. There are many variations of this but the basic idea is to help children to express feelings and help others connect their actions and the impact it has on others. An example could include “I feel angry when you keep bumping into my table while I am working. Please stop.” The child who received the message cannot walk away or ignore the message. They must at least state that they heard the message. This is important because children must feel confident that they will be heard when they talk about their feelings with others. Adults must coach this type of interaction in the beginning until children naturally begin to utilize it with others.
All of this may seem like a lot of work but it is so important. An emotionally healthy child is confident that his/her feelings matter and will be taken seriously by his/her parents and other people. The child has the tools to identify feelings and knows how to appropriately work with them and talk about them with others. These skills lay a lifelong foundation for healthy social interaction. Learning early on in life about how to work with emotions in a healthy way can benefit not only social skills but overall health as well. Mysterious stomach aches, headaches and other types of pain often have an emotional component to them. Much of this can be avoided by learning to accept all emotions as valid and finding acceptable ways to work with them in a community of supportive people.
Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Doraville/Atlanta, Georgia www.treeoflifemontessori.com