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How to Teach Kids about Feelings

Tell kids to use their words instead of behaviors to show how they feel


Mother and daughter talking at breakfast table
Granger Wootz/Blend Images/Getty Images

Teaching kids about feelings is one of the six most important life skills that your discipline should be teaching. Kids who know how to express their feelings in socially appropriate ways are less likely to exhibit behavior problems. When kids have the language to say, “I’m mad at you,” they are less likely to throw a temper tantrum. Teach them how to talk about their feelings and healthy ways to help them deal with their feelings.

Teach Kids Simple Feeling Words

Preschoolers should be taught basic feeling words such as happy, mad, sad and scared. Older kids can benefit from learning more complex feeling words such as frustrated, disappointed, and nervous.

A great way to help kids learn about feelings is to discuss how various characters in books or TV shows may feel. Pause to ask, “How do you think he feels right now?” Then discuss the various feelings the character may be experiencing and the reasons why.

This also teaches kids empathy. Young children think the world revolves around them so it can be an eye opening experience for them to learn that other people have feelings too. If your child knows that pushing his friend to the ground may make his friend mad and sad, he is less likely to do it.

Create Opportunities to Talk About Feelings

Show kids how to use feeling words in their daily vocabulary. Model how to express feelings by taking opportunities to share your feelings to your child. For example, say, “I’m sad that you don’t want to share your toys with your sister.”

Each day, ask your child, “How are you feeling today?” With young children, use a simple chart with smiley faces if that helps them to pick a feeling and then discuss that feeling together. Talk about what sorts of things influence your child’s feelings.

Point out when you notice your child is likely feeling a particular feeling. For example, say, “You look really happy that we are going to be eating ice cream,” or “It looks like you are getting frustrated playing with those blocks.”

Teach Kids How to Deal with Their Feelings

Teach kids appropriate ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions. Kids need to learn that just because they feel angry doesn’t mean they can hit someone. Instead, they need to learn anger management skills so they can resolve conflict peacefully.

One way to deal with feelings is to talk about it. Encourage kids to use their words to express how they feel. This can help them speak up to a friend who has ripped a toy out of their hand and can prevent them from lashing out and retaliating.

Teach kids how to take a self-time out. Encourage them to go to their room or another quiet place when they are getting upset. This can help them learn to calm down before they do something that gets them sent to time out.

Teaching kids how to deal with sad feelings can be helpful as well. For example, if your child feels sad that his friend won’t play with him, talk about ways he can deal with his sad feelings. Often, kids don’t know what to do when they feel sad so they become aggressive or exhibit attention-seeking behaviors.

Reinforcing Positive Ways to Express Feelings

It’s important to reinforce a child’s positive behaviors with a positive consequence when you catch him verbalizing his feelings. Praise efforts by saying something such as, “I really like the way you used your words when you told your sister you were mad at her.”

Another great way to reinforce healthy habits is to use a reward system. For example, a token economy system could help a child practice using his healthy coping strategies when he feels angry instead of becoming aggressive.

Model Healthy Behaviors

Just like with any behaviors you are trying to teach kids, it is important to model healthy ways to deal with feelings. If you tell your child to use his words when he’s angry but he witnesses you throw your cell phone after a dropped call, your words are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Point out times when you feel angry or frustrated and say it out loud. For example, “Wow, I’m angry that car just pulled in front of me.” Then take some deep breaths or model another healthy coping skill so your child can learn to recognize skills you use when you feel angry.

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