Help young children identify and express emotions

Learning how to identify and express emotions helps children become successful youth.

Young children have a hard time identifying how they are feeling and how to appropriately express these feelings. Many times young children will bite or hit out of frustration or have a hard time calming down after they have had an exciting day. This can be very frustrating for parents, caregivers and early childhood educators, but these situations are all a learning opportunity for young children in how to identify and express their emotions.

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) suggests strategies that can be used to help young children express their feelings.

  • Name the feeling: Help children name their feelings by giving them labels. “Mommy had to go to work, you are sad. You said you want your Mommy.” By naming feelings it allows young children to develop an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about their feelings.
  • Identify feelings in themselves and others: Talk about feelings they have and those that you see in others. “I hear you laughing, are you happy?” Or “She fell down, how do you think she feels?”
  • Talk about how feelings can be expressed: Lead by example. Talk about your own feelings and how you express those feelings. What do you do when you get mad? How do people know you are happy? Talk about ways that your child can express their emotions.

Michigan State University Extension recommends following these easy steps to help your child identify and express their emotions from CSEFEL:

  1. Explain the feeling by using easy words they can understand. Using picture books is a great way to illustrate the feeling.
  2. Teach your child different ways to deal with feelings. Allow them to come up with solutions; even if they aren’t appropriate, talk about why they aren’t.
  3. Praise your child when they talk about their feelings. This shows that it is okay to talk about feelings.
  4. Support your child when they talk and practice strategies for expressing emotions. Talk about feelings when playing games, eating dinner or riding in the car. The more your child practices, the quicker they will learn!

Learning to identify and express emotions in a positive and healthy way helps young children build a strong foundation of success later in life. For more information and resources about supporting young children’s emotional development visit The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) website for children’s book ideas, feeling charts, emotion faces and the turtle technique for calming down. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, visit the MSU Extension website.

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