By: Kari Walters, LPC-IT, Evaluation Coordinator/Licensed Professional Counselor In-Training

As creatures of habit, humans tend to resist change. We enjoy going about our lives knowing what will come next, and appreciate the comfort and security that routines provide. As a result, anxiety can occur when these reliable activities are pulled out from under our feet. We begin to frantically cling to the small pieces of familiarity that we once had, and can become completely lost in our fear of navigating the unknown. Fears such as these can be challenging as adults to face on our own, but even more so when children are added to the equation. Though this added responsibility may seem overwhelming, putting words to feelings is a simple, yet powerful tool that caregivers can utilize when helping guide children through stressful times.

Though many of the thoughts and feelings we are currently experiencing in society may be uncomfortable or even scary, they are normal for adults and children alike in situations such as these. As adults, many of us have the brain capacity to identify the sensations we feel within our bodies and label them as emotions. This ability allows us to understand our current situation, if the emotions fit with the current situation, and then act accordingly. Young children, however, often lack this ability. Possible uncomfortable or scary emotions occurring within them as a natural result of their current situation may be felt within the body, but are unable to be labeled or understood. This lack of understanding often leads to behaviors that may be questionable or frustrating to caregivers as children attempt to express the feelings they are experiencing without the knowledge surrounding what is occurring.

Naming these inner sensations being experienced for a child not only helps us understand what the child is going through, but helps the child understand as well. Though this concept may sound simple, knowledge is power. When children have a word for a sensation or emotion, they then have the ability to verbalize and communicate to others this emotion when it occurs. For example, 3 year old Suzie may be feeling confusion and sadness that she is currently unable to spend time with the teachers and friends that she typically sees at childcare. As adults, these feelings can be understood as normal responses to the situation. Suzie, however, due to her lack of understanding, may become overwhelmed by the emotions themselves as well as her inability to process the uncomfortable and scary sensations caused by the emotions.

This is where caregivers have the opportunity to provide support for Suzie. Labeling these challenging feelings out loud through statements such as, “It looks like you’re feeling really sad, Suzie,” is an easy, yet important first step in helping Suzie put words to her feelings. The emphasis in this statement is on saying that it APPEARS Suzie is sad versus stating that Suzie IS sad. Though a caregiver may think he or she knows what a child is experiencing, the caregiver may in fact not. Using phrases such as, “it looks like you are… ” or “you seem … ” provides children with the power to provide correction if a caregiver’s interpretation is, in fact, not accurate. Incorporating emotions labeling into life as often as possible is a simple and easy way to work on increasing childrens’ emotional awareness, and, as a result, decrease their expression of feelings through more challenging behaviors.

Besides labeling the child’s own feelings, caregivers can also model labeling their own emotions as well. For example, a grandparent may say, “I feel really angry right now that…” This statement shows the child that not only does the grandparent experience anger just like the child, but also that the grandparent is able to communicate how he or she is feeling during these times. Naming the emotions of people you may be talking about, people you may see in daily life, or characters in books are additional great ways in which to increase a child’s emotional language. Starting with basic emotions such as happy, sad, angry, or scared can build a foundation for the later introduction of more advanced feelings like frustrated, joyful, terrified, surprised, or embarrassed.

An additional and very important aspect to integrate into the labeling of emotions with children is validation. Validation is defined as “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile (Lexico, 2020).”  Though a child’s feelings may not always make sense to a caregiver, we want children to know that there is no right or wrong way to feel about any specific situation. This is always important, but even more so when a child may be experiencing shame or embarrassment surrounding how they’re feeling. Phrases that can help validate a child’s emotions include, “it’s ok to feel…”, “I would feel… if that happened to me too,” or “everyone feels … sometimes.” These statements communicate that emotions are universal, and reminds children that everyone is entitled to how they feel in their own way.

Experiencing stressful, sad, or scary situations in life is inevitable. Though caregivers often don’t have power to prevent children from facing these challenging situations, as much as they wish they could, they do have the power to help children survive and thrive. The current situation in society has provided us all with an opportunity to help children learn how to manage uncomfortable feelings in difficult times through simple tools such as naming and validating emotions. It also never hurts to remind children, as well as ourselves, that we are not alone.

How have you helped your little one cope with strong emotions?