How To Help Preschoolers Understand Emotions

Identifying Feelings Is A Good Place To Start For Young Children
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Chi King (CC BY 2.0)

Preschoolers can go through so many different emotions during the day, happy one minute and frustrated the next. But parents can help their young children learn to manage and understand their emotions.

Like adults, preschoolers experience a variety of feelings or emotions, but they are still learning about and discovering them. It's a process called social-emotional development, which includes understanding what feelings are, and how to express and manage them. These skills become increasingly important as children enter school and are often considered a key part of school readiness.

The first step is for adults to help young children understand what the basic feelings are — happy, sad, mad, frustrated and proud. This step may sound silly, but adults may take for granted that children already can identify the various emotions.

Next, children learn to identify their own feelings. Children can even start to identify how they are feeling at a certain moment.

Finally, children learn that other people have feelings. Mommy, daddy, brother, sister, grandma, grandpa and friends all have feelings. These are the early steps of developing empathy — when children first realize that other people have feelings too.

Here are some tools parents and caregivers can use to try to help preschoolers to understand their emotions:

  • Labeling the child's feelings: When a child is expressing an emotion, the adult can label it by saying, "I see that you feel angry (frustrated, etc.)." Positive emotions such as "You seem happy or proud" also can be labeled.

  • Labeling the adult's feelings: Parents can help children realize that others have feelings too by labeling their own emotions. For example, "Mommy is feeling frustrated because …" or "Daddy feels happy." This step can be extended to other family members or friends.

  • Using books to teach feelings: Children's books are a great way to talk about feelings in a very neutral way. Talking about a book character's anger, sadness or frustration sometimes might be easier than discussing a child's feelings. Parents of young children can start by labeling the character's feelings. For example, the adult could say something like, "Brother Bear feels sad that his ice cream cone fell on the ground." For preschool-age children, parents could ask the child how a particular character is feeling such as, "How do you think Brother Bear feels when his ice cream cone falls on the ground?" Going one step further, a parent could ask a child, "How would you feel if your ice cream cone fell on the ground?"

Vanderbilt University's Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning lists books that parents and caregivers can use to help children learn about emotions. The list is divided into topics such as happy emotions, sad emotions, angry or mad emotions, caring about others and empathy, and being a friend. Most of these books can be found at local libraries. Indeed, some libraries have developed similar book lists, so parents can check with the children's librarian.

Helping children understand feelings and emotions can require extra patience from parents and other adults. However, this investment is very worthwhile in fostering a child's long-term social emotional development.

Sarah Hawks is family and community educator for the University of Wisconsin-Extension Racine County, and teaches a workshop series called "Raising A Thinking Child" based on the book of the same title by Myrna B. Shure. This article is adapted from an item originally published by the Racine Journal Times.

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