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Researchers at University of California, Los Angeles, recently found that verbalizing one’s negative emotions (like fear) helps a person to actually feel less of that emotion.  So how can a parent use this information to help their children better manage their own feelings?  For younger kids, it’s all about giving them the language to conceptualize and communicate about their experiences.  Kids must acquire language tools that will allow them to identify and verbalize their own emotions.  The good news is that you can help them, and it’s pretty simple to do!

Step 1: Identify your own most common emotions. You can choose from a very wide variety of emotions (happy, annoyed, silly, angry, loving, sad, excited, frustrated, anxious/worried, joyous), but pick 3 basic ones to start.

Step 2: Start naming your own emotions, and say why you are feeling them, out loud, in front of your child. Deliver this information in an emotionally neutral way, as much as possible (Your goal is to teaching and role modeling, not self-expression.) It may help if you first identify predictable times/events when you feel those feelings, so that you’ll be prepared with a bit of a script. For example: annoyance while driving, joy at the end-of-the-day-reunions, feeling silly or happy during playtimes.

Step 3: Begin reflecting for your child what emotions you think they might be feeling. For example: “Ooh, you look really frustrated.” or “You look like you’re feeling proud of yourself for that!” If you have a child with a good attention span for discussion, you could add in an extra sentence that clarifies what s/he was doing that suggested a particular emotion. For example: “You’re yanking on that strap and yelling-I can tell that you are really frustrated!” Also at this stage-start describing emotions you observe in other people around you.  “Look Grace, Billy is crying. He feels sad because you grabbed his toy.” Or, “Wow, John, look at Grandma’s big smile-you really made her feel happy when you said that.”

Step 4: After you’ve been describing your own emotions and reflecting your child’s emotions for her/him for a few weeks, start asking your child if they are feeling a particular emotion. For example: Oh, “did that loud noise scare you?”  or “Are you feeling angry that I took that away from you?” The goal here is to support their understanding and use of emotional vocabulary.

What you’ve just done with those 4 steps is increased your child’s ability, permission, and likelihood to use words to express their feelings.  You want your whole family to be able, willing, and skillful at recognizing, naming, and appropriately expressing their feelings. Your positive role modeling will lead the way!