The importance of emotional awareness
Your child is crying hysterically on the kitchen floor. You’ve just broken the news that dad’s flight was delayed and he won’t be making it home in time for her school play. She’s kicking and yelling, tensions are rising and things only seem to be escalating. Let’s take a step back and assess the situation. Does she know how she is feeling right now? Does she have the ability to express that to you? When a child posses the skill of emotional awareness and names her emotions, she has taken the first step in emotion regulation (aka calming down).
Emotional awareness is the ability to identify one’s own feelings and the feelings of others. In the words of Dr. Daniel Siegel, we need to name it to tame it. Once we can put a name on an emotion or experience, we are much closer to attaining regulation. Many of us know this intuitively and therefore encourage our children to use their words and tell us how they’re feeling. However, the truth is that children often have no idea how they’re feeling, and therefore cannot use their words to tell us. Experiencing big feelings without having the awareness to name what is going on can feel scary and overwhelming. We can help our children build this skill through a few consistent steps.
- Label their feelings for them. Let’s go back to the example above where dad’s flight is delayed. How might your child be feeling? Try putting yourself in his shoes for a minute and picture how you feel when something you cared about doesn’t work out. Then use that information to inform your guess about what he may be feeling. Let’s guess that he may be feeling sad and disappointed. Try sitting down next to her and saying, “it’s really hard that dad isn’t going to be by your play, isn’t it? It looks like you’re feeling sad about this, and I’ll bet you’re feeling disappointed too. You were looking forward to him coming, and now he’s not.” Allow an empathetic silence here and wait for your child’s response. They might correct you and say, “I’m not disappointed. I’m angry! He never shows up for anything!” Great! Remember, this is not a game show where you need to correctly guess your child’s emotions to win a million dollars (although I would so LOVE to play that game!). Your endgame here is to build emotional awareness, which is exactly what you are doing.
- Talk about your own feelings. Children learn by example and they’re constantly absorbing what we do and trying to be more like us. Build more feelings words into your own vocabulary. For example, if you’re driving carpool and there is a ton of traffic, you can say, “I’m so frustrated with all this traffic!” or, “I’m feeling really impatient sitting here for so long.” Don’t shy away from big words. The nuances between feelings words are important! As we all as know, being angry or confused is not the same thing as being sad. We all have rich emotional experiences that are so much more than just happy, sad, or upset. Give your child a leg up by teaching them as many feelings words as possible.
- Check-in with your child regularly about their feelings. You can ask your child to draw a picture or use toys to express how they’re feeling. Try hanging up a feelings poster and use it to facilitate these conversations. Your child can point to the face that represents his current emotion. Hanging the poster in a central place in the home can help normalize emotions and encourage more discussion about feelings.
Growing up, we had lots of posters in our basement for my mother’s playgroup class. One of them was a feelings poster. On many bored occasions we’d challenge ourselves to memorize that poster. I can still recall it to this day: happy, sad, shy, excited, sorry, proud, embarrassed, angry, guilty, surprised, afraid, impatient, jealous, hopeful hurt, loved. Having this quick list of emotions off the top of my head has been surprisingly helpful.
- Use storybooks as an opportunity to develop your child’s emotional vocabulary. For example, in the book Giraffe’s Can’t Dance (spoilers ahead) Gerald the giraffe gets laughed at for dancing with his crooked knees and thin legs. Later he learns to love his own way of dancing. When reading this book with your child, try stopping at the part where others call Gerald weird and ask, “how do you think Gerald felt when they called him that?” Then, ask your child to expound further on her answer. Perhaps she says something that seems way off base such as “she probably felt happy.” Engaging in a discussion about their reasoning is incredibly helpful in building emotional awareness. There’s no need to disagree or debate either. Perhaps your child would indeed feel happy if some called her weird! Or perhaps she doesn’t know what that word means. Stay on topic and again, remember your endgame here! Regardless of their answer, take the opportunity to also discuss your own opinion about how the character might be feeling. “Ah, okay, you think he’d feel sad. I also wonder if he felt embarrassed, having everyone laugh at him like that. What do you think?”
- Play some feelings games. Feelings flashcards are a great tool for this. You can make some yourself or buy a pack online. Each card has a picture of someone making a different facial expression, representing a different emotion. You can play also feelings charades in two different ways. One way is where one person acts out the expression and the other guesses the feeling. Another way is having one person act out a scenario where one might feel the feeling, and the other has to guess the feeling. For another game, create a series of scenarios on slips of paper (or make them up as you go). Read one at a time to your child and have them provide the feelings cards to match that situation. Swap places.
Seek out opportunities to use these strategies and keep an eye out for increased emotional awareness