The importance of talking with children about feelings

The situation: Four-year-old Michael was misbehaving. The teacher, Mr. Carpenter, was speaking quietly to him, helping with feelings the young boy could not express verbally.

caring-teacher-1622554-1280x960_freeimages_Heriberto Herrera“Michael, if you are missing mommy and feeling sad, we can talk about her, think about her and make her a picture,” Mr. C said. “You can miss mommy and still feel like a big schoolboy who can manage and be safe.”

Nearby, Alex had been watching this interaction out of the corner of his eye while building with blocks. Unexpectedly he lashed out at Julia, who was working next to him, knocking over her building. Julia yelled,” Alex is mean and being bad!” Alex appeared unconcerned about what he had done and continued building.

The assistant teacher, Ms. Dowd, approached Alex and Julia, hoping to find out what happened. Frustrated, Julia described the incident. Ms. Dowd turned to Alex, wondering why he would do such a thing and not apologize.

She asked, “Are you angry at Julia?” Alex refused to speak, then teared up and put his head down. It was only when Mr. Carpenter approached that he looked up, longingly, ready to speak.

He reached out to Mr. Carpenter and sighed, “I wanted you to help me with my missing-mommy feelings the way you helped Michael.”

The lesson: Every early childhood classroom should include the “language of feelings.” Addressing behavior (what a child is actively doing) is different from addressing feeling (what a child is experiencing on the inside).

As adults, we tend to focus on the doing instead of the feeling, because it seems easier. It takes a little extra time to help a child listen to the feeling voice inside, and find a constructive way to express that feeling voice.

We might think we know how a child feels, but often the child surprises us.

Alex’s actions seemed angry and unfeeling, but inside he was longing and hurting. His teachers might have thought he acted out because he wanted “attention,” but Alex needed some kindness and compassion.

He did not know how to express his lonely, missing feelings. He saw Michael receive comfort and consolation from Mr. C, and Alex wanted the same for himself. What a good idea to want to feel comfort from a compassionate person you trust.

Learning points

  • Help the child figure out ways to express feelings safely: Use words, get a hug, take a walk,
  • spend some time calming down.
  • Praise the child for using words instead of acting out (yelling, tantrums, hurting others).
  • Help the child with difficult feelings while you are calm.
  • Use the “language of feelings” in your classroom.
  • Label specific feelings: happy, sad, jealous, mad, excited, surprised, lonely, hurt, scared…
  • Trust that when the child knows the words for feelings, he or she will use them – though it may take practice.
  • Upset and anger directed at a child creates more upset and anger.
  • Remember, the adult is always the model for the child; you are the model for your student.

Image courtesy of Freeimages.com/Heriberto Herrera

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    About Judith Pitlick, MA, LPCC

    Judith L. Pitlick, MA, LPCC is a child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She works with individuals, couples, parents and families.
    As a licensed teacher in regular and special education, she previously taught at a therapeutic school as well as at area colleges and universities.
    She is on the faculty at The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development, where her work includes consultation with directors, teachers and parents at area schools and child care centers.
    Pitlick is on the Faculty of the Cleveland Psychoanalytical Center and is a clinical Instructor in the Case Western Reserve Medical School Department of Psychiatry.