One of our most important responsibilities as parents is to help our children identify their emotions so that they can express themselves. It's a tough task but necessary -- it's one way to prevent them from throwing themselves on the floor in a tantrum.
One of the reasons why we find it difficult to teach their kids about feelings can be related to our culture. We can be dismissive. How many times have you told your preschooler to stop crying? Boys, in particular, are told not to shed tears because it makes them look weak. We also have issues managing our emotions!
Parents usually begin a discussion about feelings when there's a need, like when moving into a new home, or getting into a fight with a playmate. However, research shows you shouldn't wait for these occasions to happen. Instead, make time to discuss feelings and their underlying themes with a child like how you would set aside time to teach the ABCs or numbers. It sets up a more conducive atmosphere for the child to learn about emotional intelligence.
Many schools in the U.S. already incorporates teaching emotions in the schools' curriculum, with a program called RULER, developed in 2005 by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. As you and your child get comfortable about discussing emotions and feelings, make sure you use RULER as your guide:
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Recognize (How am I feeling?) Understand (What happened that lead me to feel this way?) Label (What word best describes how I am feeling?) Express (How can I best express what I am feeling here and now?) Regulate (What can I do to keep feeling this way? What can I do to change how I’m feeling?)
Here's how you can incorporate RULER into your homes. It can help you learn to managing your feelings, too.
"Tell me about some of your best moments." University of California-Santa Barbara sociologist Thomas Scheff, a proponent of emotional education, suggests doing this exercise with your child to help encourage emotional awareness. "We know we have emotions all day long, whether we’re aware of them or not," he points out in Ideas.Ted.com. Helping kids to be conscious of how they feel -- happiness being the easiest to identify -- is the first step in teaching them how to ride those moment-by-moment waves instead of getting tossed around by them.
Set up a mood meter at home. Preschool teachers use a mood meter to help kids talk about their emotions and learn new words to describe what they feel. The teachers also use colors and songs to help them identify their mood for the day. It's going to lay down the foundation of your way of communicating with your child about what he or she feels. Make a habit of asking how your child feels in the morning, after an activity, and before bedtime, because emotions change throughout the day. Talk about your own feelings, too; it will show them that you value feelings and that they are not to be dismissed.
Use words but discuss themes. Every week or so, introduce them to a new term, so they can learn the difference between happy and excited or between frustrated and angry. Don't just wait for an incident to talk about grief or sadness. Also, instead of trying to define an emotion, discuss its underlying theme, or a "feeling word." For example, anger can be experienced differently by different people, but the underlying theme is injustice or unfairness. Pinning down the theme can "help a person be seen and understood and met where she is," Robin Stern, one of the developers of RULER, tells Ideas.Ted.com.
Practice "pause before you act." The RULER program calls it the Meta-moment, where kids are encouraged to pause and think before acting. "How would my "good self" react in this situation? What can I do so that my actions reflect my best self?" It can help your child learn how to respond to the different feelings they experience. Don't expect your preschooler to adopt this practice instantly. This skill is developed through practice and you, the parent, are the best person to model this behavior, especially when you discipline your child.
Planting the seed for emotional intelligence starts at home. In due time and with consistent practice, your preschooler can use your mode meter without prompting, or express how she feels at a certain moment or as she observes other people around her. You'll also find that with emotional intelligence skills, you can communicate with the whole family better.