Last week something completely unexpected happened. I had written a post which I expected to be relatively popular and had come online to check my stats and see how it was doing. Imagine my surprise when I saw over 1000 visitors showing on my metrics for a 2 day period, especially when I realised that 90% of those visitors had viewed a different post to the one I had been promoting.
It turns out that my post ‘Exploring Emotions with Kids – Playing the “I Am” Game‘ had somehow ended up on StumbleUpon which had led to such a massive number of people viewing the post. I guess the topic of emotions and kids is a hot one, and The “I Am” Game is a great way of doing this.
This, of course, doesn’t surprise me. Since we introduced The “I Am” Game to Little Man we have played it almost every day, sometimes more than once a day, and often at his request. We have also introduced the game to friends who have been to visit over the Easter holidays, and they have joined in with us with great enthusiasm and very little explanation – it really is the simplest of ideas.
But it’s not the only way that we explore emotions with Little Man and the success of the post got me thinking about this. How many other things do we do that are super simple yet incredibly effective when helping our 4 year old deal with some pretty big emotions? As my friend mentioned to me the other day, as adults we can name and define a far greater range of emotions than our children can. We may describe ourselves as “angry”, “frustrated”, “irritated” or “annoyed”, but our children may only think of the word “cross” for how they are feeling. Or we may explain how we’re feeling “nervous”, “on edge”, or “anxious”, whereas a child may simply feel “scared”. And on the opposite side of things, we may feel “content”, “calm”, “overjoyed”, or even “ecstatic”, whilst our children name all of those things as “happy”.
So how do we help our children begin to explore and express these more subtle distinctions within their emotions, and how does that help them to develop a greater understanding of the world around them and those who they meet each day. I am sure there are any number of ways in which we can do this, but here are five of our favourite ways…
1. Copying Each Other
We’ve all had times when someone has copied what we say and do, usually for the purpose of annoying us. You know what I mean, someone decides it will be funny to copy everything we say and it just gets tiresome and frustrating. But what happens if we turn it into a fun activity that actually honours the other person, rather than irritating them?
We’ve been trying this over the past few days with Little Man and he has really enjoyed it. He seems to thrive on having our undivided attention, and what better way to show him that we are truly listening to what he is doing and saying than by copying it back to him? It doesn’t matter what he does, it could be telling us a story, making up a song, pulling silly faces, or jumping up and down, whatever he does we copy it and he just lights up!
In a way, this is an extension of The “I Am” Game, in that the person who is being copied draws solely on what feels right to them in the moment. There are no right or wrong choices in this, and that is incredibly empowering, as it enables us to be ourselves. And by mirroring each other, we add a whole new dimension to the activity, namely that being ourselves is not only completely acceptable to others but also something that they respect enough to emulate. How amazing is that?
2. Playing Role-Playing Games
Role-playing is such a natural part of childhood that you may wonder why I am listing it specifically here. But the thing is, I think that one of the greatest gifts role-playing offers our children is the opportunity to explore a range of emotions in a safe environment.
When our children pretend to be mummy or daddy and play out the things that they see us do on a day-to-day basis they are not only learning about the way the world works but also how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes. Instead of always playing the role of the child, they are able to put themselves in different positions and it can help them to learn about empathy, even if they don’t quite know what that really means at this stage.
I had never really thought about it in this way until quite recently when Little Man started interacting with his stuffed toys in a way that reflected the conversations and interactions that we have with him. Hearing Little Man tell Iggle Piggle off for hiding and “scaring” him after we’d searched all over the house for him, reminded me of the conversations we have about not running off when we’re out and about. And seeing him put Iggle Piggle on a chair to “think about” what had happened, followed by a great big hug and “I love you” showed me that he is beginning to understand things from both sides. I can’t think of a much better skill to have when it comes to interacting with others!
3. Talking About Characters in Books & Films
I’ve written previously about how important storytelling is in helping us to understand universal truths and the world around us. There are so many ways in which stories can help us to explore ideas and emotions that we may not otherwise get to experience, and talking about what the characters in these stories do and feel is a great example of this.
We started doing this with Little Man at a fairly young age, when we realised he was getting frustrated by not being able to express how he felt. I couldn’t think of any other way of introducing him to the idea of emotions (as in giving a name to the way you are feeling), because how do you describe an emotion without using its name? Think about it, how do you describe what “sad” feels like, without using the word “sad” itself (or any number of other words you, as an adult, relate to that particular feeling)?
I personally found it so baffling to go right back to basics and begin describing how I felt in a way I thought my toddler could understand, and so we turned to his favourite books and began talking to him about how the characters might be feeling at certain points in the story. When a character made a mistake, we’d talk about how sad they felt. When they were lost, we thought about how scary that must be. And when the typical “happy ending” arrived, we celebrated with them.
Little Man is a very emotional little boy. He gets ever so upset when we watch films where the characters are in danger or it seems like all is lost, to the point where there are a few films he downright refuses to watch again, even with our assurance that everything works out in the end. I get this, I really do, as I often struggle to watch things that other people can watch without a problem. I cannot help but empathise with the characters, imagining myself in their situation, and therefore feeling high levels of emotion as their story unfolds. So, for me, it makes perfect sense to use these opportunities to really talk about that emotional response and learn from it.
4. Showing Our “Emotion Faces”
Another thing that we started doing at quite a young age with Little Man was pulling what I call our “emotion faces”. I’d ask him to show me his “happy face” and watch as his face lit up in a great big smile. I’d then ask him to show me his “sad face” and watch as he tilted his head downwards (and at that stage grinned as he had yet to start sticking his bottom lip out!)
We started with relatively simple emotions and then moved on to more complex ideas, such as “angry face”, “tired face”, “scared face”, “surprised face”, “confused face”, and “loving face”. Sometimes Little Man would instinctively know how to create a face that expressed an emotion, and sometimes he would look to me to create one he could copy. Over time they have evolved as he had grown older and more able to distinguish between the subtleties of certain emotions. For instance, his “cross face” now includes crossed arms and turning his back on us, with a “harumph” grunt added for good measure!
Whilst on the surface this may seem like a very simple exercise with little exploration of the actual emotions behind each face, nothing could be further from the truth. By playing this game we are both imagining how we might express a certain emotion and developing an ability to read the body and facial expressions of other people, meaning Little Man will be more able to respond to unspoken signals given out by other people, which is such a helpful skill to have.
5. Expressing How We Feel
Finally, I think the most important thing we do as a family is actually express the way we are feeling, rather than pushing our emotions deep inside and putting on a “game face”. Life is hard, we all know that, and parenting has more than its fair share of challenges at times. Between sleep deprivation, difficulties balancing work and home life, and toddler tantrums, we all lose our cool from time to time, with ourselves and with each other. And though we may beat ourselves up for exploding in the heat of the moment, I do think that sometimes being honest with how we feel is much more important than trying to count to ten and cover it up.
I’m not saying that we should all go around shouting and screaming our frustrations at the world. What I mean is that outbursts like that will happen, and when they do it can be very helpful to sit down together afterwards and explain how we were feeling at the time and why. So, when I have had “a moment” and lost my temper with Little Man, I will go back to him, sit down, cuddle him, and explain that mummy was feeling very overwhelmed and she didn’t mean to shout but sometimes it happens.
We do the same thing when Little Man gets frustrated with something and bursts into tears. We’ll say something like, “I know you’re feeling upset right now, it’s okay to feel upset” to try and help him connect how he feels with words he can use, so that in future he can express himself in a way that is more easily understand than a total meltdown. And I think it is working, because now he can sometimes tell us he feels “sad” or “cross” with a few tears, rather than being completely overwhelmed by his emotion.
Equally, on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, we express the love, joy, and happiness we are feeling many, many times a day. Little Man is so confident at randomly going up to someone he loves, putting his arms around them and saying “I love you”. It is the most spontaneous thing in the world to him, he simply expresses it when he feels it, and I think that comes down to the fact that we have always expressed how we feel (both good and bad).
I’m not saying that any of this is easy – sometimes expressing ourselves is one of the hardest things in the world. It can be scary putting how we feel out there. I know that Tim finds it much, much harder than I do – I am most certainly one of those people who wears her heart on her sleeve for the entire world to see (which is not always the wisest idea!) But it is our hope that through encouraging a healthy understanding of his emotions and those that others feel, Little Man will find it easier to navigate the minefield of events and emotions that will face him as he grows up.
So there you have it, 5 more ways in which we explore emotions with our child. Tell me, how do you explore emotions with your kids?