Sunday, April 14, 2013

Emotions, Feelings, and Being Smart About Them Both

As a therapist who works with young children one of my biggest challenges is getting kids to talk about their feelings and emotions. It's not that they don't want to talk or even that they don't know they are experiencing complex emotions. The issue is usually that they don't have the EI (emotional intelligence) to understand their own emotions much less the emotions of others. I have a client who described school as "stupid" and "boring" because they were feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at not being able to keep pace with their classmates. A pre-teen client doesn't understand the emotional impact their anger outbursts have on others because they can barely articulate what makes someone feel happy or sad. These kids lack the EI to process their emotions. Why is that important? Because when a child understands their emotions they can control them better. They can also perceive others emotions and learn to sympathize with others. I have seen it happen in a teenage client who suddenly began to view their parents' overbearing behavior as concern for their well-being and stopped bucking them on their rules. The teen stopped feeling powerless and started talking to their parents again (which improved their relationship immensely) and made life a little more bearable for everyone.

How do we develop EI? Are we born with the ability to sense others emotions or is it something we learn? I think it is something that can be developed and it starts with understanding our own emotions first. Too often I find children use anger to respond to a variety of emotions: frustration, boredom, irritation, being overwhelmed, even sadness. That's a lot of emotions for one response to cover! If I feel a child has misnamed their emotion I might say something like, "It seems like you are really frustrated with school right now" or "I wonder if you are worried about something and that is why your tummy hurts?" I may need to try and explain the emotion: "Sometimes I feel like my stomach is turning circles. That's when I know I'm nervous" or "Being excited is like being super, super happy!" I also use games. I have a feelings BINGO game that I use to help clients familiarize themselves with different feelings.
This game covers things like sad, mad, and happy as well as shy, hot, and sick. I also use this to help clients to differentiate between feelings (externally affected reactions) vs. emotions (internally controlled reactions). I can also link the two (sometimes when you get angry you actually feel hot). I also cut these pictures out and use them for a matching game.
These resources came from You can look for other ESOL resources for teaching feelings and emotions. These are usually basic and include pictures which I find to be helpful. In fact, I think I'm going to buy 1 of these:
for each of my kids so I can always know at a glance how they are feeling.

If you are having trouble with a child who is responding in anger or sadness to everything and seems to have a hard time feeling "heard" try some of the emotional vocabulary building games and suggestions above. A quick search of Google reveals hundreds of links to worksheets and games. By providing children with the words for their feelings and emotions we are empowering them to understand and take control over these emotions before the emotion overpowers them.

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