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Language of Emotions: teach your children to identify and sit with what they feel

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By Julie Miley Schlegel, MD, FAAP

Photo by fizkes

It was not easy for me to go back to work after my first maternity leave. At the time, I was a pediatric resident working ungodly hours in the hospital setting, and I had just spent weeks at home getting to know this precious baby that had joined our lives. Handing her over to someone else’s care was hard for me.

My husband and I chose a Montessori school for our firstborn where she would stay while we worked. It was heart-wrenching to leave her there at first, because I had tended to her every need and didn’t want to let go. It’s been a 16-year process, learning to give up control over my children (one I’m still working on).

One day when she was around 3 months old, I went to pick her up in the afternoon. I pulled into the driveway of the baby school, and as I got out of my car, I heard her familiar wail all the way from the driveway. I walked into the school to get her and saw her on the changing table, red as a tomato, mad as a hornet, screaming her head off. The lead teacher was calmly saying, “you are very angry. You don’t want a diaper change. You are angry.”

I had never seen someone talk to a baby like that, but what a gift that teacher taught me and gave my daughter. One of the best gifts you can give a child is helping her name, recognize, process, and feel her emotions.

When your children are young, there are four basic emotions for you to help them learn: happy, sad, angry, and scared. Try naming them for your children when they are too young to do so.

“You are happy the puppy ran through the yard.”

“You are sad because mom (or dad) is leaving you to go to work.”

“You are angry that it’s time for bed. You want to keep playing.”

“That loud thunder made you feel scared.”

Teaching your kids about their feelings from a young age is very important, because we all know the emotions get more complex as we grow. If we do not teach kids to recognize and process their emotions, then as their complexity grows to include shame, insecurity, grief, and regret, the release of these emotions can come out in an unhealthy way. And emotions that are suppressed do not stay suppressed, in my experience. They come out in an unhealthy way even decades later.

The root of my anger when my son runs out in front of a car is really fear, not anger, that he will be hit and harmed. And coming home irritable and biting at everyone in my house is sometimes exhaustion. When someone questions my parenting, it makes me feel insecure, which also comes out as anger at that person. Jealousy, disappointment, and a sense of injustice can come out as rage as well.

As children get older, their range of emotions will grow, and it will forever serve them in their future relationships — with themselves and others — if they can recognize and accurately feel their own emotions. Indeed, strong emotional intelligence can be a predictor of future success.

Our kids will have to learn jealousy when their friends have a playdate without them. Insecurity when they are first made fun of. Embarrassment when they trip and fall in the school play. And grief when they experience their first death or heartbreak.

But they will also get to experience pride at a job well done. Joy when they win a championship game. And love and security as you teach them what that feels like in family and friendship. And as these skills develop, they develop what I feel is one of the most important: confidence.

Think of all the emotions you are feeling in this COVID pandemic: fear, anxiety, boredom, insecurity, worry, sadness, loneliness. Now imagine trying to process all of those emotions as a 7-year-old or a 16-year-old without the life experience to help you know what you are feeling. You can be a model to name your own feelings and help your children learn the foreign language of emotions.

Fifteen years ago, my daughter calmed immediately when she was picked up from the changing table. I watched her stop screaming immediately, look at me, and smile. Her teacher kissed her cheek and handed her to me with a final reminder of the emotion she had just experienced. “You were angry. You did not like your diaper change.”

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