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Developing your child’s ability to talk about, understand and manage feelings

What is understanding and managing feelings?

Some children have gaps in their vocabularies for ‘feelings words’. This means that they can struggle to know and communicate how they feel. This can make it hard for them to manage feelings which can impact on their behaviour.

We can use strategies to help children to notice how they feel, learn words for how they feel and manage how they feel.

We can do this through coaching children when they experience different feelings.

We can also model how we (adults) experience and manage different feeling

How to understand and manage feelings?

Picture showing two different facial expressions

To help your child manage and understand their feelings, try to:

  • respond to your child’s feeling by matching their facial expression
  • add some exaggeration to separate from our own feeling
  • label the feeling or feelings. You can try to ‘Name it to tame it’ as soon as we have a name for a feeling we start to calm
  • make the label accurate, for example, sometimes your child may behave in an ‘angry’ way but this may be because they are ‘worried’, ‘scared’, ‘upset’
  • ‘I wonder if you’re feeling sad that you can’t stay and play…’
  • use words like ‘think’, ‘know’, ‘believe’, ‘remember’, ‘wonder’.
  • ‘I think you might be worried about going to school tomorrow’.
  • to begin with, as your child is still developing their ‘feelings’ vocabulary, try to use one consistent label per feeling. For example, stick to ‘cross’ rather than lots of other words that mean the same, such as, ‘angry’, ‘mad’, ‘irritated’.
  • You may also use a picture to visually support this feeling.
    Image of a sad faceimage of a angry face

Cues

Help your child to notice the cues that they are feeling this way. Cues will be personal to each child, for example:

  • in their facial expression, for example, “I think you’re angry because I can see that your eyes are frowning”.
  • in the way their body looks, for example, “I wonder if you’re worried because you’re moving around a lot”.
  • in the way their body feels, for example, “maybe your tummy feels funny because you’re worried”, “you might feel your heart beating quickly in your chest when you’re scared”.

Support your child to understand the feeling

Reassure them that it’s ok to feel this way. Some children Two faces communicating might be very unsettled by the physical feeling that an emotion triggers, giving extra reassurance that this is normal can help.

Explain why they feel this way.

Support your child to manage the feeling

image of a upset face

One way to manage a feeling is to communicate the feeling with words, give your child a script for what they could say, for example, “you could tell me, ‘I feel sad’”.

Give suggestions of what your child can do to cope with the feeling and start to calm.

The coping strategies need to be individual to your child. You may know these things already or you might need to observe your child. Look for little things that your child might do to calm themselves when they are cross, worried, or upset.

If your child struggles to process and understand spoken language they might benefit from these strategies being visually supported (ask your Speech and Language image different ways on how to manage a feeling Therapist for the strategy sheet called ‘suggestions for using emotion monitoring cards’.)

Repair and problem solve

Help your child to work out how to make the situation better.

Depending on the situation and how upset, worried, or angry your child is, they may need some time to calm down before using lots of language to talk about what has happened.

Keep questions simple (see the ‘talking about behaviour with a child with communication difficulties’ resource).

How to model and understand other people’s feelings

Label our own feelings

For children who are still developing their vocabularies for feelings words, try to use one consistent label per feeling, for example, stick to ‘cross’ rather than lots of other words that mean the same such as, ‘angry’, ‘mad’, or ‘irritated’.

Support your child to understand the feeling by explaining why we are feeling this way

  • “I’m feeling sad because my favourite jumper is ripped.”
  • “I’m worried because I can’t find the car keys and so we might be late for school.”
  • “I’m feeling cross because the computer is broken.”

Help your child to notice the cues that you are feeling this way

Talk about things that they can see and hear and things that any physical feelings you also have:

Image of frowning face with red cheeks

  • “You can tell I’m cross because I’m frowning and my cheeks are red and hot”
  • “When I’m worried, my voice goes quiet”
  • “When I’m sad I feel like I’ve got a lump in my throat”

 

Verbalise how you manage the feeling

We often talk to ourselves in our head to help us manage feelings and situations. Saying these thoughts out loud can model to children how we manage feelings.

This also helps children who struggle to ‘read’ people, to know how they are feeling and why and to predict what they are going to do.

  • “That car just pulled out and me stop quickly so I feel very cross. I’m going to take a deep breath to calm me down”.
  • “I’m a bit worried that my phone isn’t working, I just need to take a break from this game so I can feel better and try and fix it”.

Model that you are ok even when you are feeling a particular way

  • “I’m feeling sad that (someone’s name) is poorly. It’s ok to feel a bit sad or worried when someone is poorly”.
  • “I’m cross that I can’t find my purse. It’s normal to feel a bit cross or worried when you can’t find something important”.

For children who find it hard to understand spoken language

Be careful not to overload them-use single words to label feelings, for example, ‘sad’.

Try to visually support the label with a picture.

Show them what to do to help them feel ok again and model how they could ask for this help, for example, with a sign or single word, such as, ‘hug’.

Keep explanations simple about why they feel a certain way, for example: ‘Want to play. Playing finished. Sad.’

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Disclaimer

Please note this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s. The details in this resource may not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If you have specific questions about how this resource relates to your child, please ask your doctor.

Resource number: SL56

Resource Type: Article

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