When I taught third grade in a public school, I learned that many children didn’t understand their own emotions. I saw this play out every day in the classroom, and read research to support it. At a staff meeting, I learned that the majority of third-graders could only identify happy and sad emotions. That idea really resonated with me. Right now, Miss H (3) can identify about 4 emotions. I’m not sure she can identify them in herself, but she definitely notices when I’m happy, sad, angry, or frustrated. I want her to be able to identify and appropriately respond to her own emotions. We have a lot of work to do!
Why Teaching About Emotions is Important
The first step towards handling our emotions is recognizing them. When I wrote my post about handling anger, a few people mentioned that they can tell when they start to get angry, and then they can do whatever steps are necessary to avoid losing their cool. If someone never learns how to recognize and deal with anger, they will always lose their cool! This goes for other emotions, even the less intense ones. The phrase “I’m bored” often masks a wide range of childhood emotions, from worn-out to grief. If children are taught to specifically identify the emotion they’re experience, they can learn how to handle it better (and you might not hear “I’m bored!” so often.)
Charlotte Mason said:
In Educating the Feelings we Modify the Character––But our feelings, as our thoughts, depend upon what we are; we feel in all things as ’tis our nature to,’ and the point to be noticed is that our feelings are educable, and that in educating the feelings we modify the character. A pressing danger our day is that the delicate task of educating shall be exchanged for the much simpler one of blunting the feelings. (Parents and Children)
In other words: We all feel emotions differently, and that is in our nature. How we handle them builds our character. It might be easier to teach children to distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings, it’s important to teach them how to appropriately manage them.
We all know of adults who have unhealthy coping mechanisms for various emotions. This is blunting, and it isn’t helpful.
How to teach About Emotions
The first one is obvious. Talk about it. Children learn from our model. When I feel a negative emotion, I explain it to Miss H (and apologize when necessary!) She quickly picked up on frustration, and now every time I breathe too loudly she asks, “Mom, why are you frustrated?”
Reading living texts gives rich opportunities to discuss different emotions. I ask questions like, “How do you think she feels now?” This also allows children to develop empathy, which is so important!
Miss H has this Melissa & Doug Bear Dress-Up. Each face has a different emotion. This gives us a chance to talk about how the teddy bear feels. We also try to choose an outfit that fits her mood. Miss H decided that if the teddy bear is sick, she should wear pajamas. If she’s happy, she might want to wear a happy color, like yellow.
The movie Inside Out does a great job describing emotions and how we handle them.
Limit screen time, because too much of it hinders your child’s ability to develop empathy. (Here’s a good article on the effects screen time has on social and emotional growth). TV (Netflix, movies, etc.) manages our emotions for us. We turn off unpleasant feelings we don’t want to cope with, and instead feel what a Hollywood producer wants us to. Charlotte Mason had no idea how major “blunting the feelings” would become in future in generations!