6 ideas for helping kids understand their emotions

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Disney's "Inside Out" steps into your head to meet your emotions. BYU

Disney’s “Inside Out” steps into your head to meet your emotions, which is fitting as a new BYU study found that kids can recognize emotions as early as at age 4.

Joy, sadness, anger and disgust.

Thanks to the Disney animated flick “Inside Out,” parents and their kids may be thinking a lot more about these emotions. And hopefully they’re talking about them, too, says Ross Flom, a BYU psychology professor who specializes in child development. Flom and two former grad students co-authored a study released in the September 2015 issue of  “Journal of Experimental Psychology” that shows kids as young as age 4 can recognize complex emotions in others and see them in themselves around age 5.

“We do know that kids or parents that do talk to their kids about emotional events tend to perform better academically and socially as they enter school age,” Flom says.  Here are his six tips for helping kids get in touch with their emotions:

1. Start young

Parents help kids identify emotions from the cradle, Flom says. “One of the first things shared between an adult and an infant is emotion. New moms, within a few days, are very good at reading their infant’s cues and clues.” Starting around age 2 1/2 or 3, parents can start talking to their kids about their emotions.

2. Give it a name

Often, kids feel an emotion without really knowing what they’re feeling. Parents can help by adding descriptions and words to those emotions. “Things like joy and sadness and fear are pretty straightforward to identify,” Flom says, “whereas secondary emotions are difficult to describe, like pride, shame and guilt.” Instead of telling a child, “You probably feel guilty,” Flom recommends saying, “When I break a rule I often feel guilty. How do you feel?” Adding a label lets kids know they aren’t alone with their emotions.

3. Get details about how they feel

Especially when dealing with young children, Flom recommends asking specific questions about how an emotion makes them feel. Does it hurt their tummy? Make them feel hot? “Get them to explain out loud about what they are feeling,” he says. “That gives you as a parent a window to see how they are processing things and what they’re thinking and that can guide you how to best respond to your children’s needs.”

4. No emotion is off limits

Parents often try to buffer their children by downplaying negative emotions, but ignoring an emotion won’t make it go away. Rather parents should talk through emotions with their kids — including through teen and young adult years — so they can constructively deal with their feelings. “I think it’s better to recognize it and work through it rather than bury them under a rug,” Flom says. “It’s OK to identify and recognize an emotion; it’s how we act on those emotions that matters.”

5. Think of solutions

After discussing an emotion, help brainstorm what the child should do next. Questions like “What are you going to do about this?” or “What will you do next?” keep a child from dwelling endlessly on their emotions.

6. Model healthy behavior

Everyone has bad days, and it’s OK for a child to know that Mom or Dad is in a bad mood or feeling frustrated. “If we can say that right on the front end, that can save lots of conflict,” Flom says. When dealing with family members who are upset, try to keep cool. “When our kids are not in control of their emotions, we need to take control of ours,” he says. When a parent disagrees with a child or argues with their spouse, make sure everyone in the family knows that fight was simply an intense moment. “Parents can say, ‘We were both angry, we were both upset at each other, but we both still love each other.’ Show them the conflict is eventually resolved and apologies are said.”

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Natalie Hollingshead is a former magazine editor turned freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly about home, family, food and travel for a handful of publications, and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking” (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Elyssa Andrus. A native of Alberta, Canada, Natalie lives in Orem with her husband and their three children.

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