Emotions: pre-school and beyond
We can help children from a very young age to learn about emotions, how to express them and the words that we use.
Here is a blog talking about just that: Emotions in preschool-aged children.
We, as adults, can learn a lot from young children too. Whose 4 year old isn't completely honest at expressing emotions or saying what they think?! In this current climate where mental health is top of many agendas, wouldn't it be great to start showing our children how confident we are about labelling and expressing our own emotions? There are so many emotion words out there and sometimes it is hard for children to learn what these words mean and how you might physically or mentally feel when you are in a particular emotional state.
As adults we often hold our emotions so tightly to our chests that our children/those we work with may be learning that it is normal to keep your feelings to yourself and not talk about them. What impact may this have on their future mental health?
Try talking openly about how you feel using words and descriptions e.g. 'I am anxious about my interview. I feel like I have a tightness in my chest and a funny feeling in my tummy, I keep thinking about what will happen over and over again. This is how I feel when I am anxious.' It's helpful to talk about emotions after they have passed too e.g. after your interview, so that your child knows that anxiety is nothing to be afraid of.
I use the principle of Emotions Coaching to support children and young people to link physical feelings and thoughts to emotions. It's not a structured approach to teaching emotions and how to manage these (I mention a couple of those below); it is more a way of communicating with everyone that makes them feel validated and accepted, helping them learn about emotions, how to label them and respond to them in everyday interactions.
It's been particularly helpful when working with young people with so called 'challenging behaviour' or trauma, but it's an approach I use now with children of all ages. The principle involves recognising emotional responses and validating these e.g. avoiding saying things like 'don't be silly' or 'it's nothing to worry about'...what may be nothing for us to worry about may be something for significant for that child! Responses such as 'I can see that you are shouting because the noise in the canteen worries you' is much more helpful and will help you develop a relationship with the young person so that you can then support them to recognise their feeling as worry/anxiety and problem solve the situation. This approach also increases the likelihood of them accepting your limits e.g you can't throw chairs when you are feeling worried.
A note to remind anyone reading this that you need to take into account a child's cognitive level and any underlying needs e.g sensory, autism, developmental language disorder, when talking to them about emotions. For example, if a child has immature language skills you may need to approach talking about emotions with simplified language or pictures. Don't be put off though, the potential impact of ignoring emotional development is too great. Children with developmental language disorder are twice as likely as their peers with typical language development to experience social, emotional and mental health difficulties (Yew & O’Kearney, 2013).
It may take a little thought but all children and young people can be supported. Contact your local speech and language therapist, specialist autism teacher etc. if you need help. It's what they are there for! There are lots of structured programmes to help children learn about emotions too e.g. zones of regulation and Emotion Works are two approaches I use in speech therapy...these resources can be great when a child has calmed down and is ready talk about emotions, how they make us feel and problem solve...but that's a blog for another day!
If you work in a school and have not come across training in emotions coaching and becoming an attachment aware school, I would highly recommend you investigate accessing this. I'm far from an expert but from my experience schools are much happier places for both pupils and staff when everyone understands these principles.
We can all get started using the emotions coaching principles; you may naturally communicate that way. If you don't, I think you'll be amazed with the impact it can have on relationships and behaviours. Who knows? The impact on long-term mental health in future generations could be even greater.