How to help children identify and recognize emotions

On Our Sleeves

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Monday at noon, Nationwide Children’s Hospital On Our Sleeves Clinical Director and pediatric psychologist Dr. Parker Huston joins NBC4’s Darlene Hill to discuss how to help children identify and recognize emotions.

he ability to identify and distinguish between different emotions is a core skill children start learning early in life.

Identifying emotions

  • As toddlers, most children can distinguish between major emotions like anger, fear, sadness and happiness.
    • They learn to read faces, tone of voice and body language, and can tell the difference between these emotional states in those around them.
    • As they start to develop language skills, it’s important they learn words to associate with these emotions.
  • As we get older, we learn there are more specific emotions, like frustration, joy and disgust.
    • We also learn here are more subtle versions of most emotions, like the difference between happiness, joy, contentment, elation and pride.

Helping a child build their emotional language gives them a better understanding of how to use words to express how they are feeling – a crucial component of Emotional Empowerment.

Recognizing emotions

We can only work to express and regulate our emotions if we are able to recognize them in real-time and understand how they affect our thoughts and behavior. This is the same for kids.

Many people – both kids and adults – find it difficult to recognize emotions as they are feeling them. By working to draw attention to how kids are feeling in the moment, we can create a mental habit of doing a self-check and adjust our thoughts and behaviors based on how we feel – before our emotions get the best of us. 

  • For younger children, the process starts when they learn how to recall past situations and identify the emotions they were experiencing at that time. It can be difficult for them to step back and recognize their current emotions at first, especially difficult emotions like anger, sadness or fear. When young kids are in these moments, they often don’t want to take a break to talk about feelings. Adults can help by labeling the emotion in the moment, and then having conversations about recent experiences to help them form a habit of recognizing and naming their emotions.
  • Preschool- and Elementary-aged children benefit from having others help them identify emotions, when possible. Adults can help them focus on recognizing emotions they are feeling in the moment and how they affect behavior. At first, the adults need to do most of the work, but over time, you will notice children start to recognize their emotions earlier and can start to take action.
    • To get this process started, adults can label the emotion: “It looks like you’re feeling _______ right now. I can tell because ________.” This also highlights the fact we have signs to let other people know how we are feeling. Describing behaviors, facial expressions, tone of voice or body language helps you identify how they are feeling.

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