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Helping kids learn to name their feelings

By The Health News Team | February 11, 2021
Daughter hugging mother smiling together on couch.

In a funk. This is how a lot of us might explain how we’ve been feeling lately. And kids are no different.
It’s not easy dealing with nearly a year of constant COVID-19 concerns and social isolation. And while some have far more comfortable circumstances — a roof over their heads, food on the table, a consistent Wi-Fi connection — anyone could be feeling that something’s not quite right.
“The pandemic has affected us all in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “While some may assume children do not face the same adult stressors, it’s important to understand that children process information in their own ways based on their development, and they have been equally affected.”
Depending on age and emotional awareness, kids don’t always know exactly what they’re feeling and why — and why these feelings might be making them act out — especially during trying times such as these. But being able to identify and name the feelings they have can help.

Importance of ID’ing emotions

According to a study conducted by UCLA researchers, putting feelings into words helps us feel better. Verbalizing emotions can reduce the intensity of anger, sadness, pain and other difficult feelings.
Children who are able to identify their emotions are more likely to:

  • Be kind 

  • Be less fearful

  • Have healthy relationships

  • Be able to manage behaviors

  • Do well in school

  • Be able to calm themselves

  • Be resilient

  • Feel confident

  • Have a positive outlook

So, how can adults help kids identify their feelings and cope with them? Dr. Bradshaw says the first step is to give them the vocabulary to express them.
Here are some emotions kids might have and examples of circumstances that may make them feel this way:

  • Angry: When your brother takes a toy you’re playing with and won’t give it back

  • Annoyed: When a friend keeps singing a silly song over and over and won’t stop when you ask

  • Bored: When there’s no one around to play with or nothing to do that interests you

  • Calm: When you sit down to read a book with someone you love

  • Embarrassed: When you accidently wear your T-shirt backward and someone points it out

  • Excited: When your birthday is tomorrow and you can’t wait to celebrate

  • Frustrated: When you keep trying to make a basket or score a goal, but miss every time

  • Guilty or ashamed: When you do something you know is against the rules

  • Happy: When your parent pushes you as high as you can go on a swing

  • Hungry: When you don’t eat enough of your lunch and your parent won’t let you have a snack before dinner

  • Hurt: When your friend picks someone else to go on a special adventure

  • In pain: When something you ate is making your tummy grumble and feel like you ate rocks

  • Jealous: When the kid up the street gets a new bike just like the one you’ve been wanting for a long time

  • Lonely: When you wish you had someone to play with but don’t

  • Nervous: When you have to talk for the first time in front of the other kids in your class

  • Overwhelmed: When there’s lots of noise or activity around you and it doesn’t feel good

  • Proud: When you help your parent with a chore and they thank you for doing a great job

  • Sad: When you lose your favorite stuffed animal and don’t think you’ll ever get it back

  • Scared: When you see a big dog running toward you and don’t know if it’s nice or not

  • Sick: When you catch a bad cold and your whole head feels like someone is squeezing it hard

  • Silly: When you’ve got the giggles and wiggles and just want to let them out

  • Sleepy: When you take a warm bath, put on your PJs and snuggle into bed

  • Surprised: When your parent brings home a special treat and it’s not even your birthday

  • Worried: When you hear that someone you love is sick and you don’t know if they’ll get better

There are plenty of useful resources to help children match and identify their feelings, such as charts with emojis or even faces of other children. Parents can demonstrate with their own face or even point out characters in favorite books or shows expressing different emotions. Another fun strategy is to act out emotions both in a fun and sincere way, Dr. Bradshaw says.
“Our children are always learning through watching,” he says. “We can use our own experiences to share how we feel and point out how our face and body language communicate this. It can also help to describe how we are feeling inside, such as muscle tightness, tummy aches or feeling full of energy.”
Once children can name their feelings, help them to process the more difficult ones:

  • Ask why they might be feeling that way: “Why do you think you feel angry right now?”

  • Help them determine how big their feeling is on a scale of 1 to 10: “If 1 is just a little angry and 10 is really angry, what number between 1 and 10 would you use to say how angry you feel right now?”

  • If they are having difficulty identifying why they feel the way they do, try offering an observation: “Do you think you might have yelled at your sister because you feel angry?”

  • Offer to help them cope with the current emotion and plan ahead for the next time they have uncomfortable emotions: “What can I do to help you feel better? Do you want to talk about it or would you like me to sit here quietly with you for a while? What can you do differently the next time you feel angry?”

According to Dr. Bradshaw, sometimes a little one-one-one attention, a hug and just listening is all that is needed to make a child feel heard and feel better.
“What is most important is that you validate their feelings. After this, you can offer to help and assist them with implementing tools so they can help themselves,” he says.

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