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Emotions are God-given. Starting at a very young age children feel all types of emotion. They know sadness, happiness, fear, anger, and many other feelings. Feelings tell us how we feel about different situations. A little boy who is being bullied at school may feel apprehensive about going to school. A little girl may feel anxious because her teacher is always shouting. Feelings can be a good thing and they can push us into action and give us energy to stop negative experiences and gain positive ones. On the other hand feelings can be a negative thing if handled inappropriately. Even though children feel emotions, they don’t always understand them and may not know what they mean. And they may not know what to do with them. Parents can help their children to understand what they are feeling.

If you observe a young child from birth to about 3 to 5 years you will see that child very much in touch with their feelings. They are not shy to express what they feel. For example, if a baby is hungry, upset or angry you know it! Many times though children will not express their feelings properly or even if they do, they learn that it is not ok to “have” their feelings. In many homes, children are taught in many covert or overt ways, in verbalised or non verbalised ways, that they should not have feelings. This is one of the biggest core issues in mental health. Growing up to know what one’s feelings are, having them internally and then expressing them in ways that are appropriate and harm neither self or others is an important aspect of growing into a healthy adult. Yet this process is not taught in many homes.

As early as 2 years old, children are ready to learn names of feelings. Language is developing rapidly at this time and items are being given their proper names. You can include feelings in a list of things that children learn using pictures of people’s faces or talking about how situations make them feel. My little 2 ½ year old grand niece was able to ask, “Why are you feeling sad, Nana?” Her mum had taught her about feelings through her own example. One day, when asked why she was irritable, she was able to identify her own feelings by saying “I’m feeling sad because Nana has gone back to Jo’burg.”

Children need an emotionally safe atmosphere, one in which the message is “You are allowed to feel.” Feelings are normal. Feelings are not right or wrong. They are not good or bad. In order for children to learn to identify and properly handle their feelings, children must feel that they are emotionally safe, that they will not be punished for having feelings and that mum and dad and other significant people also have feelings.

The central people in a child’s life have much power to influence a child when it comes to emotions. If a child hears you say” I am really angry about that…” or “I’m sad that I lost my job” or “I feel hurt that you forgot my birthday”, the child comes to see that the important people in his life have feelings and that it is ok to talk about them.

You can ask questions like” what did you feel when the teacher shouted at you” or statements like “you must have felt hurt when your friend didn’t invite you to his birthday party.” This type of interchange with a child gives him permission to feel. Children do not start out knowing the names of feelings anymore than they know the names of other things. They must be taught.

Keep it simple in the beginning. Talk about 5 basic feelings. You can tell your child that the first three feelings rhyme..mad sad glad. The other two are afraid and hurt. Use these names in everyday conversations. Ask your child if she is feeling sad or happy. Ask if she knows the name of the feeling she is having at that moment. When children are old enough to write, they can write down various feelings they have had during the day. At bedtime the parent might go over the list and discuss what situation brought on the feeling.

You could play games. Ask the child to think of times when they were angry, sad etc. They then pretend they are in those situations. Ask how their faces feel and what they are feeling on the inside. Happiness is usually associated with smiles, joy and laughter. Sadness is associated with crying, frowns and heaviness. Anxiety feels like butterflies in the tummy. Fear makes you want to hide and causes a tight feeling of frown on your face. Anger makes you want to explode and causes a snarling look on the face.

Feelings can be talked about at any time of the day. For example at the dinner table, each family member might tell of an incident that occurred that day and then identify what feelings were evoked. There are many books available for children about emotions. You could also make posters showing faces with different expressions and underneath write the name of the feeling.

When a child tells you he feels a certain way do not under any circumstances tell him that he should not feel that way. Feelings must be allowed and only the person who is experiencing the feeling knows what he is feeling. Telling a person that he should not or does not feel a certain way provokes anger and resentment and also is demeaning and disrespectful and works counter to your task of allowing children to feel.

Once the identification of basic feelings is beginning to be understood by the young child it is time to move on to how to express the feelings in appropriate ways. Parents need to tell their child that hurting themselves or others is never allowed as a way of expressing emotion. Tell children that the most important and helpful way to express their feelings is to state them aloud. Sometimes just saying what they are feeling out loud is enough. When they express a feeling reflect it back to them. In other words paraphrase back to them what you hear so that they feel both heard and understood. For example when your son says he is angry at John you can say “John really made you mad.”

If your child needs more than just speaking his feelings, parents need to provide creative ways of allowing their child to express what he is feeling. For example pounding a pillow; going outside and shouting; running; riding their bicycle, kicking a ball or going for a walk – all good ways of venting anger. Save old newspapers to rip apart. Egg cartons are good to jump on.

Other ways of venting feelings include many art media. Painting, drawing, writing, singing, dancing, miming to show feelings are all useful ways of expressing emotion. Also allow your child to cry. Never tell your child to stop crying. It is a built in bodily means of expressing feelings. Your child would not cry if he did not need to cry.

Teach child that they do not have to stuff down their feelings. Unexpressed feelings are one of the major reasons for many bodily illnesses and symptoms and also the reason for many behavioural problems.

By teaching your child to identify what he is feeling and then showing him and allowing him to appropriately express those emotions, you will be giving him a major tool that will have life long benefits for his mental health. He will also lead a much fuller life. He will be a person who knows what he is feeling and what to do with those feelings. This is a worthwhile investment to make in your child’s life. The importance of identifying and appropriately expressing feelings cannot be overstated. Invest time and energy in this area of your child’s life and you and he will reap great rewards

by Linda Madhoo (used with permission)