Photo by Lisa Jay

Birdy and I have been enjoying a beautiful picture book recently.  It’s called The Saddest King by Chris Wormell.  In this fictional kingdom, happiness is compulsory by order of the King.  Until one day, a small boy breaks the law, he cries.  He gets dragged before the King, and explains that he wants to be sad because his dog has died.  In the end it’s revealed that the King’s happy face is just a mask, and that deep down he’s very sad too because his dog died.  Together they have a good cry and the message of the book is that it’s OK to be sad, sometimes you just have to be the way you feel.

I’ve been realizing the importance lately of teaching children to recognize their emotions and stories are a great tool to help kids do this.  When you look at the pictures together you can ask your child to identify the expressions on the characters’ faces.  This will help you to gauge their emotional literacy.  On the most basic level, kids should be able to identify whether somebody is happy or sad.  But it’s helpful for them to learn about more complex emotions too – frustration, anger, love, jealousy, worry, satisfaction.  Helping them to identify these emotions in a story can expand their emotional vocabulary and enable them to identify their own feelings more accurately.

The reason I think stories are such a useful tool for identifying emotions is that they link the emotion to its cause.  In the well-known book Giraffes Can’t Dance, Gerald feels shame because the other animals laugh at his bad dancing and he feels left out.  In Where the Wild Things Are Max feels angry because his Mum calls him a Wild Thing and sends him to bed without his dinner.  Helping your child to see the link between the characters’ feelings and whatever it was that prompted them is a skill that will set them up for life.

Another way to help your child to learn about their emotions is to draw or cut out different facial expressions.  Ask your child what they think the person is feeling and what might have made them feel that way.  Tell them about a time you felt that emotion yourself, what caused it and how you dealt with it.

Also you can help your child identify how their physical needs affect their moods.  For example, my daughter Birdy always gets grumpy when her blood sugar is low.  A quick drink of milk or a snack of fruit will snap her out of it.  For other kids it might be when they’re cold or tired or have been inside for too long.  You may start to recognize a certain emotional response they fall back on, like hitting when they feel threatened or not sharing when they feel jealous.  Helping them to recognize the emotions that drive their behaviour can guide them towards finding more positive ways of expressing themselves.  After all our emotions are there to tell us something about ourselves.

By the way, I’ve only recently learned the importance of this because I’ve realized my own inability to express my feelings.  That might sound odd, given that I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I tend to talk about what I think, rather than what I feel.  Even when asked about my feelings I tend to answer in ‘thinking’ language – maybe because in my world it is normal to express ideas and opinions, but not emotions.  I consider this to be a handicap because it takes me a long time to work out what I’m feeling and why, and I usually only come to a conclusion via a long and tortuous discussion of some other, more incidental ‘issue’.  See.  There.  I just said ‘conclusion’.  It’s a thinking word, not a feeling one.

Another book series I’ve found helpful for children is the When I’m Feeling… series by Five Mile Press.  We got the When I’m Feeling Sad book for Birdy after our dog died, and it explains what sadness feels like, what kind of things can make us feel sad and some comforts that might help us feel better.  It’s also got notes for parents in the back.  But like most things, books can only teach so much.  What kids will really learn most from is what’s modeled to them.  We have to be prepared to gently share our emotions with them, so they understand that its OK to feel sad or frustrated or lonely or excited.  If we pretend everything is OK all the time, we can’t expect them to ask for help when they really need it.

Are your children good at expressing their emotions or come out in other ways?  Have you noticed any patterns in their behaviour?  Have you discovered any useful tools for teaching children about their emotions?  Do you sometimes find it hard to express or share what you are really feeling?