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As Shirley Oldale tucked her 3-year-old son into bed, he said, “I am sad because I wanted to play, and I don’t want to go to bed.”
Oldale, a mother in West Yorkshire, United Kingdom, has been teaching her child how to express his emotions since he was 30 months old.
“I feel so proud when I hear him express his emotions as I know I was not encouraged to express emotions associated with challenge or so-called difficult emotions such as anger,” she said.
To teach her son about emotions, she reads flip books with pictures of facial expressions that show how children feel and why they might feel that way.
That ability Oldale is teaching her son is called emotional literacy, and it’s something many parents and caregivers are taking a proactive role in teaching their children.
Emotions drive many aspects of the human experience like the quality of relationships with friends and family, said Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor at the Yale Child Study Center.
“We all need a vocabulary to describe our inner experiences and feelings. Without that we can’t communicate effectively, get our needs met, and get the support we need to thrive,” he said.
Emotional literacy can help children work through negative emotions better, according to Dr. Nerissa Bauer, a behavioral pediatrician in Indianapolis.
“When kids are acting out or having behavioral outbursts, it is a sign they are hurting, they need our help but don’t yet have the tools or strategies to effectively get the help they need,” Bauer said.
Emotional development during a pandemic
Children’s emotional development and well-being need extra attention during the pandemic, said Tamsin Grimmer, early years consultant and associate of Early Education, a UK charity that focuses on improving early childhood education.
Kids might feel uncertain or unsafe, or they may be picking up on those emotions from their family members, she said.
When young ones learn how to harness emotional literacy, they become more resilient and can cope better with life’s tough moments, Grimmer added.
During the pandemic, educators like Lisa Agyapong worked with children to help them understand how to calm down. She is an early years manager with Early Years Alliance, an educational charity in the UK.
A glitter jar to represent emotions
One of the activities she taught children involved making a glitter jar. When the children shook the jar, the movement of the glitter represented their out-of-control emotions, she said. As the glitter settled down, so did the children’s emotions, she explained.
“Being together in the time it takes the glitter to settle gives the child a chance to calm down, without even realizing that they are doing it,” Agyapong said.
Teaching children emotional literacy has grown in popularity over the past decade as studies have come out showing the benefits, according to Brackett, author of “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive.”
“Children with more developed emotion skills tend to have greater well-being, high-quality relationships, and perform better academically,” he said.
Anxiety and depression have also spiked in younger populations, so it’s more important than ever to teach them how to process their emotions in a healthy way, Brackett added.
An emotional literacy lesson plan
Parents and caregivers should start by helping children identify emotions in the moment, Bauer said, since it can be difficult for kids to connect the dots after the fact.
And it’s not just about when they are angry or sad. “If your child is laughing and smiling, you can say, “Look at that smile! You are so happy!” Bauer said.
Children are also fervent observers, so parents and caregivers should practice and demonstrate emotional literacy, too, Brackett said. They can state what emotion they are feeling and why, like “Mommy feels sad because …” he explained.
Throughout the day, start conversations with your children about emotions, Bauer said. This builds the belief that talking about emotions is normal and encourages them to share.
If you’re watching television or reading a book, discuss the different emotions characters feel, she added.
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Once children can identify their emotions, they can begin learning how to process them in a healthy way, Brackett said.
Bauer recommended parents teach their children self-calming methods like deep breathing, meditation or playing outside.
Parents and caregivers can also share stories of how they’ve handled specific situations when they have had negative emotions, so children have examples on what to do, she said.