How to Encourage Children to Express Feelings & Emotions

September 6, 2021
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A key part in supporting children’s development is encouraging them to recognise, understand, and express their feelings and emotions. This can have a positive impact on their mental health, behaviour, academic success, and motivation to learn throughout their life.

In this article, we will outline the behaviours you can expect from a child who is still learning to express their feelings appropriately, as well as explaining why a child may struggle to communicate the way they feel, and providing strategies for helping children to do so.

A teacher encouraging a child to express their feelings

Behaviour and Feelings

Being unable to express feelings verbally can be one of the causes of challenging behaviour. Children might not have the ability to talk about their emotions due to their age, particularly if they are under five – for example:

  • Up to two years old, they will usually be possessive – particularly of people and toys they love – and easily frustrated, which might result in shouting and throwing things.
  • At three years old, they might have more language with which to express themselves, but still be prone to sudden mood swings or behaving in extreme ways without necessarily knowing the reason why.

By five years old, children will usually be able to express and manage their feelings some or most of the time, but some children struggle to do this even as they get older. This could be due to Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) like Autism Spectrum Disorder, speech, language, and communication needs or social, emotional, and mental health needs (e.g. anxiety). Children with these needs might, instead of talking about their feelings:

  • Frequently cry or have tantrums.
  • Have aggressive outbursts, including hitting, biting, or throwing things.
  • Often feel hurt, misunderstood, or like a victim.
  • Worry too much or too long over minor things.
  • Be quick to get frustrated and give up.
  • Have trouble letting go of things that are upsetting.
  • Become overexcited about social activities or events, having a sudden burst of energy.

Teaching children about emotions and encouraging them to express their feelings can have a positive impact on their behaviour, as it gives them the words to talk about how they feel.

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Want to Learn More?

Our Challenging Behaviour training course is recommended for professionals who want to have a better understanding of how to respond to the behaviour of the children and young people that they work with. It emphasises proactive strategies to prevent behaviour incidents, as well as going through research-based reactive strategies (including reacting to extreme behaviour) and putting support in place after behaviour incidents. Visit our course library to have a look at this and our other available training courses.

Why Might a Child Struggle to Identify Emotions?

Emotional development is a complex process. Identifying emotions in others – and in yourself – involves recognising cues and matching them to the specific emotion, such as tears for sadness or frowning for anger. It also involves understanding which situations might evoke a certain emotion, so that children can identify why someone might be feeling the way they are. 

It takes time for children to build up the ability to do this, and they may also not have the language available to them to describe their – or other people’s – feelings adequately yet. However, with practice, children can learn to identify emotions accurately.

How Can I Help Children to Express Their Feelings?

All adults who work with or care for children have a role in encouraging children to express their feelings. You are their role model as well as their coach – you can demonstrate different emotions and reactions to events, and coping strategies, as well as helping them practise saying their thoughts out loud.

It’s important to do this because children who have high levels of emotional intelligence are more likely to:

  • Be empathic and supportive of others.
  • Have good mental health and wellbeing (including reduced risk of anxiety).
  • Behave appropriately.
  • Have positive and stable relationships.
  • Perform well at school and in their career.

Having the freedom to express themselves also shows children that you care about them and want to take their feelings into account. They know that you will listen to them, never minimising or dismissing the way they feel.

An adult talking with a child

Ideas for helping children to express their feelings include:

  • Role-playing different emotions and how to talk about them – come up with a scenario, explain or ask them to guess what you’re each feeling (talking about the reactions in your body, such as tears or butterflies in your stomach), and work together to find a constructive way of handling it.
  • Labelling emotions for them until they can do it themselves, creating a link between the feeling and the word – research has shown that simply labelling a feeling reduces the negative effects it is having on you. For example, you might say: “You look sad – are you sad because you wanted to play with Lily?” Use picture books, photos, and videos to talk about other people’s facial expressions and think about what they might be feeling. In the classroom, you could choose books that spark discussion about emotions during literacy, such as The Day The Crayons Quit, Wonder, The Birds, or Hug Me (also available on CBeebies bedtime stories).
  • Drawing, painting, and colouring – some children might benefit from drawing what they think their emotion looks like. This can help them to process it, as well as helping you understand how they’re feeling, reducing frustration on both sides.
  • Modelling positive behaviours – show them how to handle challenging situations and disappointment appropriately by doing it yourself. You might tell them how you feel and why, then model coping strategies such as listening to music, taking a bath, or sitting in a calm, quiet area.

Tips for Improving a Child’s Emotional Development

We have collated five tips you can use to improve a child’s emotional development and encourage them to express their feelings.

1. Respond to their emotional cues

Recognising and responding to emotions is a two-way process – if you want to teach children how to do it, read the cues they are sending out and respond as soon as you can. Remember not to invalidate or dismiss their feelings. 

A professional working with a student

2. Help them express feelings in a positive way – even if this isn’t verbal

While we’ve discussed how important it is to express feelings verbally, sometimes this won’t be possible. In these cases, there are other ways that children can express themselves positively, such as having an outlet for the emotional energy – dancing, running, singing, or star jumps can be great for this, as can taking some deep breaths, or having time out to relax. Brainstorm strategies with the child when you can – what do they think might help?

In the classroom, strategies such as feelings boards (where each child places their name of a photograph of them into a different area of emotion on the board) and feelings scales (where you work with the child to develop a scale charting emotions from ‘one’ – calm and ready to learn – to ‘five’ – heightened negative emotions – and come up with strategies to help at each level) could help to get children thinking about how they feel and how to handle it.

3. Positively reinforce them

When the child expresses their feelings in an appropriate way, praise them. This shows them that feelings are normal and it’s OK to express them, but also reinforces that there is an appropriate way of doing so. The child will then be more likely to repeat the appropriate behaviour in the future.

Teacher talking to students in the classroom

4. Be approachable

Use open body language, friendly facial expressions, and kind words to show children that you’re there for them and open to what they have to say. Listen actively throughout conversations about feelings – don’t get distracted. Often, children only need to be heard and understood, and then they feel able to move past the problem.

5. Draw their attention to other children’s feelings

Young children aren’t aware of other people’s feelings in the same way that adults are – by drawing their attention to the fact that their actions can affect others, you can help them to make steps in their emotional development. If two children have an argument, listen to both perspectives, and discuss how both of them have needs and feelings that need to be resolved. Help to remind children of this consistently – for example, you might say: “Oh dear, Mo is sitting in the corner and he looks sad – why do you think he might be upset? Can you think of anything to do to make him feel better?”

Emotional development is important to children’s outcomes later on, and there are plenty of strategies that you can use to be supportive and encouraging. Remember to be a good role model and use everyday situations as teaching points – building children’s abilities to understand, recognise, and express feelings reduces the likelihood of challenging behaviour. 

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