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Teaching Kids How to Express Feelings

When her block tower fell or it was bedtime, 2-year-old Hannah McMann would lash out. "That's when I realized I needed to teach her words to let me know what she was feeling," says mom Andrea of Norfolk, NE. After a few tries, Hannah learned to say "frustrated" when she felt that way -- at least most of the time.

"Kids who have a larger vocabulary to describe their emotions tend to have fewer behavioral problems," says Phil Strain, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology and psychiatry at the University of Colorado, Denver. "That's because naming a feeling is the first step in coming up with a solution." The good news: Between 24 and 30 months, toddlers develop the cognitive skills they need to put their emotions into words. But repetition is key. To start:

  • Label your child's moods -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • Describe everyone's feelings, even animals'. Lisa Cottone of Dix Hills, NY, did that at the petting zoo with her son. "The goats were jumping, waiting to be fed, so I said, 'They're excited!' "
  • Build up your vocab. Go beyond "mad," and "glad," and include "silly," "proud," and "loved."

"If a child can pinpoint what he and others are experiencing, he can more easily get his needs met -- and help others do the same," Strain says. And that's a skill that lasts a lifetime.

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