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Identify and Express Emotions

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Dear Debi,
My 17-month-old toddler throws a fit every night at bedtime. She will not listen to a word we say. She has a 2-month-old brother and I wonder if she’s doing this for attention. How can I help my daughter express herself in a more effective way and how can I learn to understand her emotions?
Sandra, Los Angeles, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
Host
  • Observe, listen and respond to kids’ emotions
  • Identify and label emotions verbally
  • Provide activities to help kids express emotions
Expert Advice
Ann Corwin, Ph. D.
Ann Corwin, Ph. D.
Early childhood development specialist
We aren’t born with all our feeling and emotions. We accumulate many of them through experiences. Infants are born to know distress and joy, but other emotions are developed in stages. Kids can’t always pin-point what they are feeling or know what to do when those feeling arise.

It’s the parents’ and child care providers’ job to observe and label a child’s feelings and teach children the appropriate responses to those feelings. These appropriate responses are different for different people. For instance, in some families, it’s normal to stomp your feet when you are mad, while in other families, that’s not considered appropriate behavior.

It’s our jobs to teach appropriate behaviors to kids so that they have ways to express their emotions. Remember, kids learn through repetition, so it’s important to repeat and reaffirm children consistently so they practice identifying and expressing their emotions.

Modeling the emotions is the best way to help kids identify them. If you are playing with kids and everyone is laughing and being silly, you can take that opportunity to say, “I feel silly and I feel happy.” That way, kids will learn the words for the way they feel at the moment.

Another way to help kids learn is through books. There are many books that teach emotions. I have a book that shows all the different emotions that kids feel and associates them with colors. It’s a tangible way for them to connect their feelings with something that seems solid.

Puppets are another great way to teach kids about feelings. For example, to teach about feeling sad, you can use a puppet that has sad eyes and a tear drop on his cheek. They understand the connections with being sad and crying and this helps kids start to identify with the emotion represented by the puppet.

Kids learn best through play. Child Care providers can play games such as the “feelings game” where child care providers model what “happy,” “sad,” and “mad” looks like physically and the kids have to act out what that looks like for them. You can say “Show me what sad looks like? Show me what you look like when you’re happy.” Child Care providers should model it first, but have kids show you what that looks like for them.

Routine is one more way to teach kids how to express their emotions. If you have a ritual in the morning when the child is dropped off and you show them how happy you are to see them and you express that every day, kids will learn from that routine. I also think having a space in your care where kids can express themselves safely is a good idea.

I suggest having a “feeling corner” where there are faces on the wall expressing different emotions. Under each face, there should be an envelope with a color card in it. For example, you can have a blue card under the sad face and a red card under the mad face, to correspond with the emotion. If a child is sad, they can go to the corner and pull out a blue card and if children can’t use words to describe their feelings, they can at least come up to the provider and hand the child care provider a card, which is their way of saying “I’m sad.”

If a child is told to stop crying or acting like a baby, you’re telling them that whatever he or she is feeling is not correct. As a result, the next time that child is distressed, he or she may replace that sad feeling with an inappropriate feeling or action, such as hitting another kid. They will replace their legitimate feeling with other feelings or actions because they were told that their original feelings were not accurate. This can carry on through adulthood and establish wrong communication patterns throughout a person’s life
Child Care provider Comments
Verdis Ferraro
Verdis Ferraro
Child care provider for 23 years
I think it’s important to watch and observe the child to see what they are feeling and why. These feelings can be caused by a variety of things, such as jealousy or separation anxiety. It’s important to let kids work out their feelings and try to address their needs.

Some kids may need more attention from you while others may want more space. I try to look for cues in their body language, because even when kids haven’t developed language skills, they can still express themselves through their bodies.
Darlene
Darlene
Family child care provider for 4 years
I recommend taking time to talk to kids regularly. I find that kids’ feelings really come up a lot during circle time. It’s a great time to find out what’s going on with their emotions. Many times, the other kids also pick up on what may be happening to a child and chime in to say something like, “Johnny is feeling sad. He misses his Mommy.” That’s how I begin to get the child to open up and talk about what’s going on and how he’s feeling.
Consuelo Ducoing
Consuelo Ducoing
Child care provider for 14 years
It’s a good idea to talk to children and ask them why they are upset. It helps kids acknowledge when they’re sad or mad and gives them the opportunity to express it. When the child tells you why they feeling a certain way, it’s important to validate their feelings so they know that they are understood.

Emotion Cards Featured Activity:
Emotion Cards
Expressing Emotions Featured Video:
Expressing Emotions
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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Resources
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
The American Association for the Child's Right to Play
Center On The Social And Emotional Foundations For Early Learning
1-877-275-3227
Downloads (Get Reader)
Tips on How to Make Every Child Feel Valued pdf
Tips on Resolving Conflicts pdf
 
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