10 ways to support healthy emotional expression in your child


Rosie Byrnes


Find out how you can support healthy emotional expression at home.

Times are tough for everyone at the moment, and kids are no exception. Learn how you can help support healthy emotional expression in your child, even during times of stress.

Supporting healthy emotional expression in your child

If you’re like most of the world, your feelings and emotions have been all over the place recently. With the world turned upside down, it’s no wonder that people are feeling more emotionally discombobulated; and now, we are all collectively learning how to handle all of that emotional turmoil.

Between school closures and social distancing, virtual classrooms and total lockdowns, kids have been facing just as much uncertainty and emotional upheaval as the rest of us. And, unlike the generations before them, the kids of today’s world don’t have many opportunities for social interaction—meaning that their social-emotional development may be taking a hit.

While it’s difficult to know yet exactly how the pandemic will affect younger generations, many experts are already showing concern about the deterioration of young people’s mental health during this time. But by becoming aware of the skills that kids will need to thrive in even the most difficult situations, we can help combat some of the negative impacts that the pandemic may have on their future.

Here are ten ways to help kids navigate their emotions in a healthy way, no matter what difficulties come their way:

1. Talk about feelings—a lot!

Talking honestly about our feelings is a tried-and-true method for working through them—but it’s harder than it sounds! Even adults can struggle to put their feelings into words.

Making time for open communication can help both of you develop the skills to figure out what it is you’re feeling, and how best to express it. And the more you talk about your emotions, the easier it becomes to express them.

2. Narrate your emotions.

Kids might know exactly how they’re feeling, but can still struggle to find the words to match. You can help support a strong emotional vocabulary by narrating your own feelings throughout the day.

Saying things like, “I feel frustrated right now,” or “This makes me feel excited!” can not only teach kids the names of those feelings, but it can also help them identify how other people may be feeling around them—a valuable skill to cultivate, particularly in times of limited social interaction.

3. Put names to faces.

In order to express their emotions in a healthy way, kids first need to be able to identify the feeling itself. Understanding facial expressions is an important step to developing empathy, as well—you can help your child tackle both skills at once by matching images of different faces to the emotions they seem to be feeling.

This is an especially important skill to develop in the midst of the pandemic, as so many faces are covered by masks; it’s more challenging than ever for kids to learn to differentiate between facial expressions.

Try making a “Feelings Faces Chart” using photos of facial expressions cut from a magazine, or match different sets of eyes and mouths to create a variety of wacky faces. Get creative, and keep challenging your child to identify a wide array of different emotions.

4. Find characters with feelings.

Books and movies can be excellent opportunities to talk about emotions. Characters in stories often react emotionally to the plot; in these moments, you can pause to have a chat with your child about how the character might be feeling.

You can also take this one step further by practicing perspective-taking. When you come across a character in a difficult situation, ask your child how they would react if they were in that character’s shoes.

5. Make a secret code.

Sometimes, your child may wish to communicate their feelings to you without using their words (for example, if there are other people around that they feel less comfortable with).

For these situations, it can be helpful (and fun!) to have a “secret” method of communication; a hand signal, code word, or gesture can let you know when your child is feeling anxious or upset. This is a great way to support emotional expression when verbal communication is challenging.

In Ms. Rosie’s Class:

At the beginning of the year, our class decided on a super-secret signal to indicate when we were “at our tipping point”—we put one finger on our nose.

Whenever kids in my class feel their anxiety or frustration reaching a breaking point, they just touch their nose. That lets me (and their classmates) know that they need my help, or maybe just a break.

6. Don’t assume you know how kids are feeling.

It’s easy for us as adults to decide that we understand every experience a child is having, simply because we’ve been around longer than they have. But the truth is that, just like with anyone else, we have no way of knowing exactly what’s going on in our kids’ heads.

Resist the temptation to tell your child how they’re feeling. If you’re wrong, you could deepen their frustration by confirming that you don’t really understand what they’re going through. And even if you’re right, you’ve taken away their opportunity to work through it on their own.

Instead of making assumptions, ask your child about their feelings instead. You might say something like, “I notice you don’t quite seem like your usual self right now. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?”

7. Don’t punish emotions—not even the outbursts.

We all lose our cool occasionally. Tough emotions, like anger and anxiety, can be difficult to express (especially for kids). When they come out as tantrums or outbursts, it can feel like an intentional misbehavior, and our instinct may be to punish them.

Try to remember that these incidents are another example of emotional expression; just not a healthy one! Instead of punishing them, use these moments as a starting point for conversations about healthy and unhealthy ways to manage big feelings.

Of course, emotional outbursts can also have unintended consequences, and these should definitely be addressed. If a child says hurtful words to someone in a fit of anger, for example, you can explain why that’s not a healthy or acceptable way to express their feelings. Then, once they feel calm again, you can help them craft a genuine apology or find a way to solve any problems that were created.

8. …But do decide on expectations for handling tough feelings.

While tantrums are bound to happen occasionally, you can help your child avoid them by coming up with a “game plan” for when those big feelings come along.

Work together with your child to create a set of guidelines for expressing their emotions in a way that doesn’t hurt themselves, other people, or property. This might include strategies for emotional regulation (like taking deep breaths), or a step-by-step plan of action.

9. Make space for working through big emotions.

Creating a physical space for emotional expression, such as a Calm Down Corner, can be really helpful for kids working through tough feelings like anger or anxiety. This should be a cozy area designed to instill a sense of calm and stability.

You might include pillows, fidget toys, coloring pages, music, books, or even a list of calm-down strategies. Have fun creating this space together with your child, so that it really feels like it belongs to them.

10. Encourage creative expression.

Whether it’s music, art, drama, writing, movement, or anything else, encourage your child to explore at least one form of creative expression that they enjoy. Creativity can help us express that which is difficult to put into words, and feelings are certainly no exception!