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How to Explain Emotions to a Child

Give your child the gift of acknowledging and understanding their emotions.

Source: rubberduck1951/Pixabay

You can intentionally teach your child how to experience, recognize, and deal with emotions. It will be one of the greatest gifts you can give them. It will also be key to their resilience.

Dysfunctional families (that are likely to produce dysfunctional adults) follow classic patterns. One such pattern is the triad of “Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel, Don’t Tell,” which has been described by psychologist Claudia Black:

“Children learn not to share and, inevitably, deny their feelings. Family members frequently discount and invalidate their feelings. 'You have nothing to be afraid of.' … when in fact they may very well have something to be afraid of. 'You have nothing to be angry about.' … when there are often many reasons to be angry, leading to emotional isolation. Being alone with feelings of fear, worry, embarrassment, guilt, anger, loneliness, etc., leads to a state of desperation or being overwhelmed. Such a state of being does not lend itself to survival, so children learn other ways to cope. Some learn how to discount and repress feelings, while others learn simply not to feel.”

You may have experienced this growing up (many people have). If so, be very intentional about not passing these unhealthy and downright harmful messages down to your own kids.

I have had the joy of making many “Facebook friends” through the community that has bloomed on my Facebook page. One of them is Lisa Allen, an illustrator and designer from New Zealand. Since I frequently post about mental health, she thought I might appreciate the children’s book that she created with Rose Stanley, an educator on grief, loss, and emotional literacy.

Brain Tricks is a very cute, short little book that cleverly introduces key concepts about emotions for kids. Here are some examples:

1. Pain can be both physical and emotional.

“(Pain) has two parts; pain you feel in your body (physical) and pain you feel in your mind (emotional)… when you feel upset, this could mean that you are sad, mad, disappointed, or embarrassed, just to name a few. Sometimes we feel one kind of pain. Sometimes we feel both.”

They use funny examples to illustrate the two different types of pain, which is helpful. Also, the listing of all these different words (sad, mad, etc.) would give you a great opportunity to discuss the differences with your child and have them come up with their own examples.

2. Your brain may try to protect you from emotional pain.

“If, in bravely trying to protect you from feeling emotional pain, your brain keeps on the same loop of 'Don’t get upset! Avoid at all costs!' you can miss out on a really BIG opportunity.”

I love how they make learning seem fun, exciting, and suspenseful. As the funny little illustration of a pirate brain points out on the same page: “You will be stronger than before.”

3. Our emotions will keep bugging us.

“If we let our brain get stuck on pushing our pain down, or pretending it isn’t there, or blaming someone for it… things could get messy.”

Oh, how I wish I had learned about all this as a kid!

There's much more to this little book, but these were some of my favorite points, which cleverly illustrate how you might describe and discuss emotions with kids.

A small caveat: Since the book was created by New Zealanders, there are some terms that you or your children may not recognize. For example, there's a story about going to the school “tuckshop” to buy your lunch. I found that this added to the quirky cuteness of the book.

Make room for your children to express their emotions. Help them to process them. Help them not to be afraid of their feelings. This investment in the emotional intelligence of your kids will pay great dividends, not only for them but for their children, and their children’s children, on and on it will go.

@ Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas

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