Boy and woman hugging

How to develop your child's emotional literacy

By Dr Gail Sinitsky

Emotional literacy — the ability to understand, express and cope with a wide spectrum of emotions — lies at the heart of happiness, self-esteem, and positive relationships. 

Unlike other milestones that children are expected to reach by certain ages, becoming emotionally literate is a more dynamic process that requires nurture and attention throughout childhood. 

Below, I'm going to give you some key tips and strategies for helping to develop your child’s emotional literacy.  

1. Empathise with, and accept, all emotions — however tricky they may be!

Difficult feelings — sadness, anger, fear, jealousy and so on; despite the turbulent storms that they can elicit, are all natural emotions that help us to grow, to reflect, and to learn. They are signals that guide us. 

Yet, for children (and adults too) they can at times be frightening and overwhelming. Children need to know that these feelings are manageable – that they do not need to be suppressed and that we can in fact withstand the storm.

Children learn all of this from you.

From the moment they arrive into this world, they learn how to cope with their emotional states by mirroring how you respond to them. 

They observe and they internalise what emotions are deemed acceptable, what feelings are scary, what must be suppressed, what can be expressed and how. 

What research has shown is that babies and children who are soothed with sensitivity, warmth and empathy, will learn how to show self-compassion and how to soothe themselves in the face of heightened emotion.

So, when children are in the midst of a turbulent emotional storm, what is most helpful is to accept these feelings with empathy rather than attempt to shut them down.

How do we show empathy? Being with the child; offering comforting words; maintaining gentle eye-contact; cuddling; soothing.

As corny as it may sound, it can be as simple as “this is so difficult for you”. 

2. Develop your child’s emotion vocabulary

Children are not born with an innate emotional vocabulary to draw on at difficult times.

Rather, this is language they learn through experiences.

When children have words for what they feel – sad, worried, angry, frustrated, excited and so on - they are better able to express and communicate what is happening for them. 

Slowing down in the moment to name what they are feeling can be a momentous learning experience for your child: “You are so angry right now” or “You seem really worried”.

Giving a name to their internal turmoil can be reassuring and containing. It can also be helpful to link your child’s physical reactions to their feelings, such as: “I can see you are trembling, are you feeling scared?”

Through this process, children learn to read other people’s feelings as well as express their own. There are other ways, too, to increase emotion language: 

 — With babies and toddlers, play “Feelings Peekaboo” – each time you show your face, change your expression to reflect different feelings and then name them. For older children, you could play “Feelings Charades” where you take turns to act out an emotion. 

— If your children enjoy arts and crafts, you could get them to make a series of “Feelings Faces” by decorating paper plates with various facial expressions. If you stick a lolly-stick at the bottom of each one, you could turn them into puppets for a puppet show about feelings.

— For children who love books, there are several helpful books about various feelings. A popular example is “The Huge Bag of Worries” by Virginia Ironside. 

3. Promote an empowered attitude 

Giving children some simple yet powerful strategies to implement when faced with strong feelings will increase their ability to cope with a whole spectrum of emotions. Forewarned is forearmed, after all! 

Through this, children are empowered to manage their tricky feelings, rather than feel controlled by them. 

Some strategies that could be helpful for your child are:

  • Glitter bottle - Simply mix glitter into a bottle of water. When your child is experiencing big difficult feelings, encourage him/her to shake the bottle and watch the glitter until it all settles to the bottom. This process is mesmerising and helps children to stay grounded in the moment. For older children, you could draw a comparison between the glitter bottle and their minds: when our emotions are overwhelming, it can be hard to see clearly (through the cloudy water) but when we give our minds a chance to settle, things become clearer and we can make decisions about what to do next. 
  • Flower breathing - Invite your child to imagine their hand is a flower and their fingers are petals. Instruct them to take deep breaths in through the nose, and out through the mouth, opening and closing their hand (flower) simultaneously. 
  • Mindful moments - To help your child stay focussed in the present, ask them to notice 3 things they can see, 3 things they can hear, and 3 things they can smell. To help with this exercise, you could take them on a walk through your home or outside around the block. 
  • Sorting activities - These types of activities can be very calming for some children. You could give your child a pack of cards to sort through, some pencils to sharpen or cars/teddies to place in size order. 

Developing children’s emotional literacy is a dynamic process that lasts throughout childhood. It is a process that will inevitably involve tears as well as laughter – theirs as well as your own!

The goal is not to respond perfectly each time but to do what you can, when you can, to enhance your children’s understanding of emotions and their capacity to cope with them. 

Dr Gail Sinitsky is a counselling psychologist, chartered with the British Psychological Society and registered with the Health Care Professions Council. Her experience and passion lies in promoting the emotional and psychological well-being of children and young people.

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