When people describe daily life with young children, they often talk about the emotional ups and downs children display on a daily basis as they make their way through mealtime, naptime, and playtime. Caregivers may describe moments of laughter, excitement, and energy as well as challenging moments such as temper tantrums or crying. These opposite feelings can happen in a single afternoon, and these ups and downs are typical.
Young children are learning to manage their feelings and express them with appropriate language and behavior. Parents, caregivers, and teachers can help young children develop these understandings by taking the time to become “emotion coaches.”
Why would an adult try to be a “coach” for children to help them learn about emotions? Learning about emotions is a bit like learning to swim. Swimming is easiest to learn in the water with someone to guide you and keep you safe. A good swim coach provides encouraging words and support as a new swimmer pulls her arms through the water and provides positive feedback and direction for improvement as she rests on the side of the pool.
Likewise, children learn to manage and express emotions appropriately when someone helps them work through their thoughts and feelings. A good emotion coach provides a child with support and encouragement during challenging moments and helps them reflect on appropriate ways to express feelings and manage emotions during moments of quiet calm. Here are some ways caregivers can be emotion coaches and help children as they develop these important skills:
Give feelings names by using emotion words
Help children learn that their feelings have names. Use words such as happy, sad, angry, frustrated, jealous, embarrassed, or lonely. For very young children, name simple emotions such as happy, sad, and angry when you see photos of faces or notice the child expressing their feelings. As children grow older, reflections might be longer. For example, a caregiver might say, “You look sad today after your cousin left to go home. Maybe you are wishing for someone who would play with you. People call the feeling being lonely. Is that how you feel?”
Describe how to share feelings in socially appropriate ways
Young children listen to how people talk about emotions and learn appropriate ways to show their feelings from the people around them. By narrating your experience, you are helping them learn. Let them hear you use words to talk about your feelings. “I was so disappointed when there was only vanilla ice cream. … I really wanted chocolate!” or “I feel calm when I watch the wind blow the leaves on the branches.”
We all have feelings
Let children know that all feelings are OK to have and talk about. Remind them that it is not OK to hurt others’ bodies or feelings or to destroy property. Say, “I know you feel angry when your brother takes the truck from you. Tell him you are mad and want it back.” Use what you see in books or videos to teach about emotions. “Look at that little girl’s smile! She is so happy when she is swinging in the park!”
Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Feelings Are Fantastic