Family Life

Raising an Expressive Child

Does your child throw temper tantrums when things don’t go his way? Does he hit siblings when he is mad? Does he throw toys across the room when he is frustrated?

Kids often don’t understand how to appropriately express strong feelings like anger, frustration, or disappointment, causing them to act out.

This is totally normal, and the good news is, parents can help kids understand their emotions, express themselves in a healthy way, and even learn to cope with their feelings.

Teach Feeling Words
The biggest obstacle toddlers have when they are trying to express their feelings is the simple fact that they do not have the words to explain what is going on. When your child has worked hard to build a tower of blocks only to have it topple down over and over again, they begin to feel frustrated. Simply stating, “You are frustrated with your blocks aren’t you? Can I help?” acknowledges your child’s feelings and gives words to identify their feelings in the future. 

If a sibling took his toy away and he begins to cry, acknowledge that he is sad and come up with a solution together to work it out. In the future, give your child the opportunity to express how he is feeling and listen. This will help him show his feelings through words rather than actions (like hitting or throwing a tantrum).

For an older child, ask him what he is feeling and listen to the answer without criticism. If he is having trouble coming up with words to express himself, give him a couple that you feel may fit the situation. Ask if he feels there is a better way he could handle the situation, and talk it out together.

Talk About Feelings Often
It is important to not only give your child the words to express his own feelings but to also notice and label the feelings of others. When you arrive home to a dog who greets you at the door with a wagging tail, explain that the dog is excited to see you. If he notices someone crying, talk about how they are sad and why. If your child acts out toward someone else, try to explain the feelings involved. “You were mad at your sister, and so you told her you didn’t like her anymore; that hurt her feelings and now she feels sad.” Help your child to notice the cues and body language of others, and guess their emotions. You can also play a game where you make faces at each other. First, make a happy face, then a mad face, then a sad face. As you read books, try to guess the feelings of the characters. Parents can also find many books and videos about feelings at their local library.

Model Appropriate Expression
It’s okay for kids to know that parents have feelings of sadness, excitement, frustration, and anger, just like they do. During these emotional moments, we can model a positive way of dealing with our feelings for our kids. When parents gets mad, they have the opportunity to yell or get physical, or they can calmly say they need to take a walk and excuse themselves until they can cool down. When we are frustrated with a task, let your kids know what you are feeling, and that you have decided to take a break or ask for help. Feelings of sadness are normal, and we can show kids it’s okay to feel down once in awhile. Spending time with people we care about, exercising, or doing something we enjoy is a great way to lift a mood. 

Teach Appropriate Ways to Deal with Emotions
Once kids can express how they feel with words, we can help them come up with appropriate ways to express their feelings. For some kids, this may be simply talking about it. For others, they may need extra snuggles or hugs. For another child, having time to be alone to sort out his thoughts and feelings or cool down gives him the time he needs to process his emotions, so he can discuss his feelings.

When my daughter gets mad, she finds it helpful to go to her room, shut the door, and turn up the music. I often hear her singing as she looks at books, plays, or even cleans. When she joins us again, she is calmer, happier, and able to talk and interact with others calmly. My son prefers to take a walk when he is upset. The exercise and fresh air helps him settle down. Depending on the child, the current emotion, and the situation, the coping skills may look very different.

As kids begin to learn to express their feelings using words and appropriate coping skills, it is important to give them positive feedback. This will help encourage them to continue to express themselves as they mature. ■

Books About Feelings for Kids
The Angry Dragon by Michael Gordon
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey
I Hate Everything: A Book About Feeling Angry by Sue Graves
Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson
How Full is Your Bucket by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer
Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell
Everybody Feels Sad! by Moira Butterfield and Holly Sterling
Everybody Feels Scared! by Moira Butterfield and Holly Sterling
The Anger Volcano by Amanda Greenslade

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