Call it as you see it
I wanted to do a series on helping children handle emotions because it is one of the most frequent topics for children in counseling. Usually, the concern centers around anger.
I think it is helpful to look at the issue as a development task. People do not know innately how to express their feelings or how to calm down when upset. Think about infant. When a baby cries, we pick her up and soothe her because she does not know how to calm down on her own. We continue to learn how to handle our emotions into adulthood. As parents, our job is to help children learn how to handle their feelings.
A good first step is to help your child learn what different emotions they have. Until children know what they are feeling, it is hard to deal with it appropriately. Labeling their feelings through daily events can help children develop a concept for different emotions. Initially, it can be the basic labeling of the feeling: Example: You are angry that your brother took your toy. Then, you can advance to describing their facial expression, actions, or internal experience when they have different emotions. Examples: I see that you are playing by yourself. I wonder if you are sad? I saw you throw your coat down. It must have frustrated you that you couldn’t zip it. I saw all your muscle get tight when you got angry and started yelling.
Just as you point out pictures in a book to a toddler and say what it is, labeling emotions will help children be able to identify the feeling for themselves. The other benefit to labeling emotions is you create an environment where we can talk about feelings outside of the context of being in trouble for their behavior. Often the only emotion we end up talking about with children is anger and this is when they are in trouble for something they did when they were angry. So children develop a vivid picture of what it is to be angry and in trouble. The hope is that with some proactive effort, we can paint a more complete picture of emotions.