It can be equally heartbreaking, frustrating and confusing to try and work out what is going on inside your child’s mind. Our instinct is often to encourage our children to talk about why they are upset or angry. But it can be really hard for a child to put their experiences into words, especially as they may not even fully understand them. Here are some activities to help your child recognise and express their feelings. The main aim is for your child to learn from you. The focus is not about fixing their worries but helping them learn how to recognise and share their emotions, and acknowledging that you have heard them.
By exploring their emotions, children can begin to make sense of them. When you give your child space to express how they feel, you’re ‘holding’ their emotions for them, which gives them a sense of reassurance and can help make their feelings seem less overwhelming. When sharing your own thoughts and experiences, be mindful that they are age appropriate for your child.
- Put a selection of different art/craft materials on the table and different coloured paper.
- Say to your child: “When I woke up this morning I felt like this” then use any materials to create your feeling on paper. This can be specific pictures or abstract marks, whatever comes to mind.
- Say to your child: “Close your eyes and imagine what it was like when you woke up this morning. Show me using the art/craft materials.”
- Tell your child three things about what you have created.
- Encourage your child to do the same and listen. Silence is okay too, just create and express on paper together.
- Ask your child to choose a selection of their toys to play with that you can create imagination stories together. Play with your child, following their lead on where their imagination takes the story.
- Try to notice events in the story that might cause a character to experience a feeling.
- Say to you child: “I wonder if that makes your (character) feel (happy, sad, scared, excited, safe, etc)?” Or say: “That makes my (character) feel…”
- You can extend this activity by saying to your child: “When I feel (emotion) I… (say what you do).”
- Ask your child: “What does your character do when they feel (emotion)?”
- Start with a simple topic, like food, sport or music.
- Say to your child: “When I eat (food) / when I listen to (music) I get words or pictures in my mind.” Act them out and ask your child to guess what emotion they are showing.
- Encourage your child to have a turn, and see if you can guess the emotion behind their thoughts and images.
- Repeat with other examples, such as ‘falling over,’ ‘not allowed to do something,’ ‘being called names’ or ‘at a party.’
All three activities can be repeated with different events, people or places as the focus. Don’t exhaust each other… just one activity at a time, and try to finish with something you know makes your child feel happy. Activities should last about twenty minutes. The activities will typically help your child start talking about feelings. Don’t be afraid to tell your child if something is too difficult for you to carry on talking about. Tell your child how you feel and what might help you feel a bit stronger, calmer, happier, etc. If your child asks a question you are not sure how to answer, it may help to ask, “What do you think?” Final tip: externalise emotions. This means talking about emotions as if they are another person in the room. For example, instead of, “What makes you angry?” Try, “What makes the anger appear?” For younger children it can help to give the feelings their own character, e.g. “What happens to make Sadie Sad come in the room?” By externalising emotions, you’re enabling your child to explore them without feeling bad about themselves, or that they are being blamed for something.