By Kathy Eugster, MA
Why Identify My Child’s Feelings?
Helping your child learn about feelings (emotions) is something that every parent can do. When children have a good “feelings vocabulary,” they will be able to notice and to identify a variety of different feelings both in themselves and in others.
By observing your child and communicating back to him or her the feelings you are observing, you are labeling the feeling your child is experiencing. Your child learns to associate a specific word to a specific feeling, thus developing a “feelings vocabulary”. Having a good feelings vocabulary will allow children to express themselves to others so that others can understand their feelings, needs, and perceptions. Being understood by others is important for healthy development, especially social skills development, in children.
By noticing and identifying in a non-judgmental manner feelings that come up in your child, you are not only providing positive attention to your child, you are also showing your child that you understand him or her. It is so very important for children to feel noticed and understood by their parents.
Noticing and identifying non-judgmentally different feelings in your child is the foundation for your child’s emotional health.
Facts About Feelings
- Feelings can be comfortable or uncomfortable. Uncomfortable feelings can be difficult when they are intense. However, they are not “bad” but rather they are informative and give us information that we can use to make them less uncomfortable.
- Feelings can be loosely grouped into categories.
- We can feel one or several feelings at the same time.
- Feelings have different intensities.
- All feelings are okay to have and to notice.
- Feelings are not the same as behaviors or actions; all feelings are okay, but not all behaviors that accompany some feelings are okay. It is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hit someone in anger.
- Feelings are also not the same as thoughts. Thoughts are what we think about inside of our head.
- How we think or behave can affect our feelings.
- Our feelings can affect how we think and behave.
- Feelings can change.
- We can communicate verbally to express and share our feelings with others.
- Sometimes we want to keep our feelings private.
- Different people can feel differently about the same thing.
Learn More About Feelings
We all have feelings and our feelings provide us with important information if we can notice or pay attention to them. When I was working with parents as a family therapist, I noticed that many parents did not have a good feelings vocabulary themselves. Usually, parents would know the basic primary feelings that came up in their children, such as happy, sad, angry and scared, but were stuck when they tried to identify and describe other feelings.
This is common for many adults. Many of us are unaware of the wide variety of more complex feelings that come up for both adults and children on a regular basis. There are many, many feeling words that describe our more complex feelings and emotional experiences, and it is important to become familiar with feelings other than just the very basic ones for optimal emotional health.
When I was learning about feelings in my clinical counselling training program, I found the best way to learn was to categorize the different feelings, first of all as either comfortable or uncomfortable and then into other somewhat related groups, instead of just lumping all feelings into a hodge-podge of feeling words. I also found, after many years of working with children, that there were a number of feelings, both basic and complex, that were important for children to become familiar with as a foundation for developing a good feelings vocabulary.
Let’s now take a look at some important feelings for children to learn about that I have grouped into several categories.
Happy is considered to be a basic primary feeling. Happy feelings are very comfortable. There has been lots of recent research on happiness and how it can support our general good health and well-being. There are many feeling words we can use to describe Happy, including Cheerful, Amused, Glad, Pleased, Joyful and Ecstatic.Content and Satisfied are comfortable feelings related to Happy, and arise when we find happiness in what we already have.
Grateful and Thankful are more complex feelings that are related to feeling Happy. When we acknowledge the goodness in our lives and are thankful for what we have, warm and comfortable feelings arise.Relieved is another complex feeling related to Happy that we feel when something unpleasant, dangerous, or difficult has been stopped.
Safe is a very, very important feeling, especially for children. Feeling Safe means we are feeling Secure knowing that nothing bad is going to happen. When we don’t feel Safe, we feel uncomfortably anxious and tense.Calm, Relaxed and Peaceful feelings are very enjoyable and are important for our general health and well-being. With these feelings, our muscles become soft as tension leaves our body. These feelings may be our nervous system’s “neutral” state, like being in a state of relaxed awareness. There are many activities that can help us to achieve a calm and relaxed state. Exercise, yoga, being in nature and meditation are just a few activities.
Feeling Hopeful, Optimistic and Encouraged are comfortable feelings related to Happy. These feelings mean we feel inspired or positive about a future event turning out well.Feeling Confident means we feel Capable and Sure of ourselves and our abilities. Feeling Brave or Courageous means showing no fear when faced with danger or difficulty. Strong, Powerful and Determined are closely related feelings.
Playful and Silly feelings are very important feelings related to Happy. These feelings are connected to having a sense of humor and allow us to have fun and enjoy the company of others. Playful feelings between parent and child are very important for a strong and healthy emotional connection.Excited feelings are related to Happy and motivate us to activity. When we feel excited we may also feel Energetic, and Enthusiastic. However, if these feelings become too intense, they may become uncomfortable and overwhelm us, possibly making our behaviors inappropriate.
Feeling Curious or Inquisitive means having the urge to know or learn more about something. We feel this way when we wonder about something and want to figure something out. Another feeling related to Curious is to feel Interested, when we feel drawn to something.
Proud is a feeling that arises when we feel happy and satisfied with ourselves. Generally, self-satisfaction is a good thing and is related to Happy, however, feeling too much pride can make us overbearing and self-important.Feeling Loved, Valued, Appreciated, Understood and Accepted are all comfortable and complex feelings related to Happy. These feelings are all important to our emotional health.
Feeling Loving towards someone or something is often considered to be a basic primary feeling and is one of the most powerful and beautiful feelings that we can experience. Feeling Affectionate, Caring, Compassionate, and Accepting are all related to Loving.Feeling Sad is considered to be another basic primary feeling and is uncomfortable, especially when intense. Some feeling words to describe Sad include Tearful, Sorrowful, Gloomy, Dejected, and Heartbroken just to name a few. Feeling Sad is an expression of grief and loss and can also be seen by others as a cry for help.
Feeling Lonely is a more complex feeling related to Sad. It is an uncomfortable feeling because humans are social creatures and do need social interactions for good emotional health. Feelings related to Lonely include feeling Left-Out, Ignored and Rejected.
Feeling Hopeless is closely related to Sad and also feels very uncomfortable because it seems as if nothing good will happen or things will never improve. When we feel Hopeless, we can often feel Discouraged or Defeated.Feeling Disappointed or Let-Down is related to Sad and usually is experienced as a feeling of loss when things don’t work out as we expected.
Feeling Hurt is very uncomfortable and can arise as a result of someone else’s words or actions. Feelings closely related to Hurt include feeling Betrayed, Humiliated, or Teased.
Sometimes when things are too much we can feel Exhausted and Overwhelmed. or even Numb and Empty. When we loose interest in things, we may feel Bored and Uninterested.
Feeling Ashamed is a very uncomfortable feeling and arises when we feel bad about ourselves. Feelings related to Ashamed include feeling Guilty, when we do something we think we should not have done, and feeling Embarrassed, when we do something we think is foolish. Other related feelings include feeling Incompetent, Remorseful and Unimportant.
Feeling Afraid is a basic primary feeling and belongs to the emotional class of Fear and Anxiety. This category of feelings can be very uncomfortable. Feeling Afraid arises in the presence of perceived danger when we feel Unsafe. A few words related to Afraid include Fearful, Frightened, Scared, Panicky and Terrified. The flight or escape response is associated with feeling Afraid.
Feeling Worried, Anxious, Apprehensive or Nervous are uncomfortable feelings related to Afraid and happen when we are concerned about something bad happening in the future.Feeling Restless or Hyper means we have too much uncomfortable anxious energy in our bodies.
Powerless is a very uncomfortable feeling that arises when we believe there is nothing we can do to change things. Other words to identify Powerless include Helpless, Vulnerable, Trapped, and Weak.
Feeling Shy or Timid are uncomfortable feelings of anxiety that we get when we are self-conscious and afraid of others’ judgements. Related feelings include Unsure, Hesitant, and Insecure.
Feeling Surprised, Shocked, Startled or Astonished are feelings that arise when something unexpected happens. Generally these are uncomfortable feelings, however, if the unexpected thing is good, these feelings can turn out to be very comfortable!
Feeling Confused can be an uncomfortable feeling because we like to know what things mean and what to expect. Other feeling words related to Confused are Mixed-Up, Puzzled or Bewildered.We can feel Suspicious and Mistrustful when we don’t trust something or someone or if we feel Doubtful or Skeptical about something.
Angry feelings belong to another basic primary feeling category. Anger arises when we are being interfered with or blocked from something we want. Being injured or threatened also can arouse anger. Aggressive behaviors (fight response) are associated with angry feelings. Feeling words used to describe Angry include Enraged, Furious, Mad and Hostile.
Frustrated is related to Angry and is a very common uncomfortable feeling, especially in children. Other words used to identify Frustrated include Irritated, Annoyed, Impatient and Grumpy.
Feeling Jealous, Envious or Resentful are complex and uncomfortable feelings and arise when we think someone else has something better.
Disgusted can also be considered as an uncomfortable basic primary emotion. This is a powerful feeling and can be described by feelings of contempt. Feeling words related to Disgusted include Disdainful, Scornful, Disapproving and Rejecting.
How Can You Identify Your Child’s Feelings?
Watch your child, think about how he or she might be feeling, and make a “Feelings Identification Statement” out loud that communicates to your child the feeling that you are noticing in your child. Make sure you are making the Feelings Identification Statement in a nonjudgmental manner.
- Don’t ask a question! For example, don’t ask, “How are you feeling?” or “Are you feeling sad?”
- Don’t express your feelings or give your point of view!
When you identify your child’s feelings, you are responding empathically to your child. Not only are you helping your child to build a feelings vocabulary, you are also showing your child that you understand his or her feelings and by doing so, you are strengthening the parent-child relationship.
Examples of how you can identify your child’s feelings that come up in the here-and-now:
- I’m noticing that you are looking really sad.
- You’re feeling very proud for putting that toy together.
- I can see that you look really surprised.
- It looks like you are feeling excited because you found that piece you were looking for.
- You are feeling so angry with me because I said you could not go out to play right now.
- It looks like you are feeling very relaxed when you lie down on those pillows.
- That’s frustrating for you when you can’t get the pieces together
- Looks like you are really feeling curious about that toy.
Examples of how you can identify feelings that come up in your child’s imaginary play:
- I can see that the kitten is feeling really powerless.
- I can see the princess is going into the cave. Looks like she is feeling very nervous.
- That dinosaur looks like he is feeling very mixed-up.
- (Child dressed as a pirate and holds a sword up in the air) Wow, this pirate looks like he feels very brave.
- (Child is pretending to be a crying baby) Oh, baby is feeling very sad.
Examples of how you can identify your child’s feelings when your child is telling you about something:
- Sounds like you felt very happy when you won that game.
- Oh, so you felt disappointed when the toy broke.
- So when Jamie pushed you, you felt very mad.
- So what you’re saying is you felt frustrated when your tower fell apart.
- Sounds like you were really feeling worried about that.
- Wow, you were so excited when you won the prize!
Examples of how you can also respond empathically by acknowledging your child’s preferences, desires, wishes, perceptions, etc.
- You really wish that we could stay longer at the park.
- You don’t like it when you lose your favorite crayon.
- I can see you really like playing with your cats.
- You really don’t want to go home now
- You want to play with your dolls now.
Here’s a hint for you:
Include the word “you” in your Feelings Identification Statement.
Please remember this point too:
You can still respond empathically to your child and identify his or her feelings and preferences even when your child is asking you for something and you cannot give what is being asked for or if you notice your child doing something inappropriate.
Examples of how you can respond empathically by identifying your child’s feelings and still maintain your limits:
- I can see you are feeling really angry with me, but the rule is no eating cookies before dinner.
- You are feeling very frustrated that your block tower fell over, but it is not okay to throw the blocks.
- You are feeling sad because you thought we were going to the park today, but tomorrow is the day for the park.
- You were so angry at Michelle that you hit her, but hitting is not okay; the rule is no hurting others.
Identifying Feelings During Parent-Child Play
You can identify your child’s feelings not only in day-to-day life, but also during playtime. In fact, identifying feelings that come up for your child during play is part of a type of parent-child play called child-directed play. Please see my Blog, “6 Key Concepts for Child-Directed Play with Your 3 to 10 year-old Child” for some ideas on how to engage in this important way of playing with your child.
What you can do:
- Learn About Feelings: Familiarize yourself with a wide variety of feelings, including the ones show above, and start identifying a range of feelings that come up for you every day.
- Identify Your Child’s Feelings: Using the examples above, try to identify as many different feelings, both comfortable and uncomfortable, that you observe in your child each day. Keep track of the feelings you identify. Start slowly by identifying basic feelings, then expand your child’s feelings vocabulary by identifying increasingly more complex feelings. What do you notice when you identify your child’s feelings? Do your child’s big feelings become less intense? Does your child seem to be expressing him or herself more easily with you? Is your child giving you more details? Do you notice your conversations are getting longer?
- Feeling Colours Game: Get your child to choose a colour that would match to a particular feeling. There are no right or wrong answers! Let your child decide. The goal is to help your child become familiar with different feeling words.
- Drawing Feelings: Next time you notice your child is upset, get him or her to draw a picture of how he or she is feeling. Then get your child to tell you about the picture.
- Feeling Faces Cards: Using a deck of Feeling Faces Cards (available at most toy stores, or you can make up a deck yourself), make up different card games. Get your child to make up games as well. See which games are your favorites!
- Books and Games About Feelings: There are many, many books and games for children that help them learn about feelings. These are great activities for parents and children do together.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
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