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Expressing Emotions

Our emotions are the biggest part of what makes us human. And yet, many of us go through life as if that weren’t the case. Whether at home or at work, we often find ourselves in a place where we don’t feel the freedom, nor have the ability, to identify and express our emotions in a healthy way.

Our emotions are so powerful. They make us do things we wish we hadn’t done. Too often, we try to deny our emotions, simultaneously teaching our kids to suppress their emotions. We deny ourselves, and one another, the permission to feel. Instead, we suck it up, squash it down, and act out.

When we cannot recognize and put into words how we feel, it’s impossible for us to do anything about it. We need to learn the ability to deal with our emotional lives in healthy ways. We seem to prefer spending more money and effort on dealing with the results of our emotional problems rather than trying to prevent them.

Emotion skills are actually skills that can be learned. Emotion skills aren’t natural. Our kids won’t magically adopt the ability to handle their emotions well. They can also be acquired by almost anyone at any age.

If we give our kids the incredible gift of developing emotional maturity, the ripple effects are massive. In fact, their ability to learn is highly correlated to their emotional capacity. The three most important aspects of learning (attention, focus, memory) are all controlled by our emotions, not cognition.

Emotion training needs to be proactive, not reactive. Learning to regulate emotions is not all that different from learning to read/write. Emotion skills are often at the bottom of the list of athletic, academic, and discipline training in our kids. The world would change if kids grew up with a strong emotional vocabulary and parents prioritized teaching them how to navigate emotion in a healthy way.

Practical tips:

1. Reflect on your own emotional development. Being born with gifts of empathy and compassion can help, but it takes time to learn the skill of identifying how you’re feeling, naming that emotion, and then express it in a healthy way. You’ll only be able to lead your children to places of maturity where you, yourself, have been. Many parents may be biologically 30 or 40 years old, but they haven’t grown past 15 emotionally. For additional growth in this area, consider talking to as clinical counselor or therapist.

2. Give your child the permission to feel. The question of “how are you feeling?” is asked so often, yet we often don’t care to truly listen to the answer. No matter how trivial of an issue your child might be going through, the emotions they experience are real. Allow your child the freedom to express any emotion. Kids often learn the powerful lesson growing up, telling them "keep your feelings to yourself; don’t allow your parents to see them because that will make bad things worse.”

  • Whatever feeling a child expresses, affirm it neutrally (don’t try to dictate or control their feelings). Don’t accidentally condemn your child for feeling scared about something silly. Give your child space to cry - don’t be too quick to redirect to something fun or tell them to “man up”.

3. Teach your child an emotion vocabulary. An emotional vocabulary is where the other milestones begin. A child needs the permission to feel, the vocabulary to express those feelings, and the ability to understand them. Print out a “feelings wheel” and use it regularly (see example in “additional resources”).

4. Help your child regulate their emotions. Self-regulation is the the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience/express these emotions. Self-regulation is one of the single most powerful skills human beings ever learn. The ability to self-regulate impacts every aspect of a person’s life, particularly in emotionally-charged moments.

5. Build empathy in your kids. A great definition of empathy for kids can be found in Romans 12:15-16 (MSG): “Laugh with your happy friends when they are happy, and share tears when they are down”. Spend time thinking about what others are feeling. When you read books and watch movies, ask your child what they think the characters are feeling. Teach ways they can attune to the emotions of others and help meet people where they’re at, emotionally. Empathy is built, like any other muscle.

Additional resources:

1. Print out a Feelings Chart and refer to it often. When you need help identifying a feeling or you want to develop an emotion vocabulary, this resource is invaluable. For younger kids, utilize pictures of emojis.

2. Self-regulation strategies:

3. book: Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett

4. book: The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis, David Cross & Wendy Lyons Sunshine

  • note: while this book was written specifically to adoptive families, it’s timeless principles hold true with every child

5. book: The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel & Tina Bryson

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