How can I help my child understand feelings and emotions?

To help the emotional development of your young child, you should show your child that you care about what the child is thinking and doing. After a parent has the ability to really understand what a young child might be feeling, it's important to start labeling those emotions. One of the easiest ways to do this without it feeling like a teaching moment is just to play with the child. When you play with your child, especially if you are following the child's lead, you are showing your child that you care about what the child is thinking and doing. What the child does is important and matters to you. This also helps the child to increase self-esteem.

One of the easiest ways to show children that you're attending to them is to narrate their play. If your toddler is playing with a toy dog, pulling it along and making it walk, you can say, "I really like how you're making the dog walk. You're trying really hard at that." You can also reflect. Parents are often concerned about their child's vocabulary and increasing their verbal expression. Sometimes, parents ask a lot of questions like "What noise does this animal make? What color is this? What color is a firetruck?" Instead of asking questions, you can help increase children's verbal expression by reflecting back what they have said. If the child says, "The dog barked," you can say, "Yes, the dog barked." That lets your child know that you are paying attention to what he said, and what he said is important to you.
Parents can start helping their kids to become emotionally “fluent” at a very early age. I recommend that parents keep a “running commentary” going, when observing social and emotional situations with their children. Start as young as 9 or 10 months, to get in the habit, and to convey the message that feelings are important in our family.

For instance, today, my three-year-old was having trouble sharing with his three-year-old neighbor. As the boys struggled, our neighbor began to cry. “See,” I said, “Your friend is sad and mad that you won’t share the toy motorcycle. Let’s see what happens if he has a turn.” After several false starts, I was able to encourage turn taking between the boys. After they had some success for a few minutes, I praised them, reminding about how hard it was to accomplish. “See, now? You boys tried hard to share, and now you’re having such fun together. Great work!”

It’s situations just like these that build a child’s capacity to understand and respond appropriately to emotions of all kinds. Bit by bit, interaction by interaction, children grow their emotional skills; skills that are essential to successful negotiation of the world as adults.

It’s this foundation that I hope will serve our children well when they become teenagers, and need to figure out all sorts of wild and wacky social and emotional situations -- without our help. When they’re little, we provide the “emotional training wheels”. We have to practice with them enough so that they’re ready to ride on their own -- one day soon.

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Children's Health

Children's Health

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.