Name it to tame it: How labelling emotions helps kids manage them
If you’re a parent, then you have no doubt witnessed some BIG emotions in your children. And a lot of the time, those big emotions can really leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to respond. But of course, you do want to help your children in these moments, right?! So maybe you try to do or say things to ease their distress.
However, our attempts to help our children are sometimes not very effective, or can even make the situation worse. And that’s because we often attempt to distract them from their emotions, or try to convince them that things are not so bad. And while this is well intentioned, it can be experienced by our children as dismissive and invalidating. Do any of these sound familiar?
- “You’re ok”
- “It’s fine, don’t worry about it”
- “Calm down, it’s not that bad!”
Unfortunately these responses can make our children feel worse, by adding secondary emotions like guilt and shame into the mix, and by creating a disconnect between us and them. When we respond like this, our children receive the message that we don’t understand how they feel. Or worse – that we don’t care.
So what can we do instead? We can acknowledge how our children are feeling and label their emotions!
Why is labelling emotions important for children?
Research tells us that the simple act of labelling emotions can help us feel calmer. When we name the emotion we are experiencing, something amazing happens inside the brain. Brain imaging studies show that when we are experiencing heightened emotions, labelling those emotions activates the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) and reduces the activity in the amygdala (the feeling brain). Which means naming emotions decreases our emotional reactivity – it puts the “brakes” on our big emotional reactions and helps us feel calmer.
Dr Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child coined the phrase Name it to Tame it to describe this process. He describes it as one of the first steps in managing big emotions and reducing our emotional reactivity.
Of course, a calmer brain is a super important reason to practice labelling your child’s emotions. But it’s not the ONLY reason. So just in case you’re not convinced yet, here are some more reasons to begin labelling your child’s big feelings!
What are the benefits of labelling emotions for children?
1. Labelling your child’s emotions for them is validating
Labelling your child’s emotions shows them that you understand what they are going through. It helps them to feel seen, heard and understood. When children feel that you understand their experience, they are better able to process their emotions and let them go.
Labelling your child’s emotions and validating their experience might sound a bit like this:
- “It sounds like you feel nervous about your first day of school. I feel nervous when I’m meeting new people too. I’m right here with you.”
- “You feel really angry that mummy said no more cookies. It’s hard when you don’t get what you want.”
- “You seem really frustrated by that maths problem. I bet you’d rather be riding your bike right now, huh?”
2. Labelling emotions gives children the vocabulary to talk about how they feel
Often when I’m working with teenagers in therapy, they really lack the words they need to talk about feelings. They tell me they feel “bad”, or “upset”, or “not great”. But they really struggle to identify the specific emotions they are feeling. And of course, without the language to describe how they feel, children can’t begin the “name it to tame it” process. So processing and moving on from how they feel becomes more difficult. They stay “stuck” in the same old (often unhelpful) patterns of feeling and responding to difficulties.
And of course, when children do not have the words they need to describe how they feel, they will instead show us how they feel. Young children who lack the vocabulary to tell us how they feel will show us with their behaviour. And often this behaviour is disruptive at best (like big meltdowns and tantrums), and harmful at worst (like aggression and lashing out at others). And of course, as children get older, the potential for their behaviour to cause significant harm to themselves or others becomes greater. So we really want to help them build this vocabulary while they are young.
3. Labelling emotions helps us find solutions
How do we find a solution, without first knowing the problem? We cannot find an appropriate coping strategy for our children if we don’t know what the emotion is that they are feeling. “Upset” really doesn’t tell us much about their internal experience, or what we can do to help, right?
But once we identify the specific emotion, we can begin to understand where it’s coming from. And then, we can work on collaborative problem solving with our kids, or we can guide them towards an appropriate coping strategy. For many people, the coping strategy they use when they feel angry, will be different to the strategy they use when they feel sad, or frustrated, or embarrassed. So it’s important to know what the specific emotion is, and to recognise how it feels in the body, before we move onto problem solving.
4. Labelling emotions builds empathy
When children learn to identify and label emotions in themselves, and have had the experience of someone respectfully guiding them through the process of understanding and managing those emotions, they become skilled at doing this with others, too. When we consistently talk to children about emotions, they learn to identify what those emotions look and feel like in their bodies and in others. And of course, children learn by modelling. So if we are able to help children label and process their emotions, we will notice that they become skilled at helping others through this process too.
Labelling emotions for children through play
So how do we teach children about emotions? Through play of course! Check out this blog post for some ideas on helping kids process emotions through play. Or read on to find out about my brand new collection of fun feelings resources designed to help your children learn all about emotions!
- Emotions Charts: Pop a feelings chart up on your wall so your child can show you how they feel next time they become frustrated, or angry or sad. When children (and adults too!) are overwhelmed by emotion, speaking becomes difficult. The area of the brain responsible for language gets shut down during the fight or flight response! Having a feelings chart up on your wall keeps lines of communication open for children during these times and also provides kids with a less confronting way to communicate with us how they feel.
- Feelings Cards: Feelings Cards are a super versatile tool for teaching emotions. You might like to play a game of feelings snap, or feelings memory with your cards. You could choose a card at random and ask your child to find that emotion in the book you’re reading. You could play feelings charades – take turns acting out the emotion on the card and have the other players try to guess what it is. Or you can simply use them as discussion prompts – when was the last time your child felt that emotion? How did they behave? How did their body feel? What can they do next time they feel this way?
- Feelings Playdough Mats: Use this fun resource to help your child link emotions with facial expressions. What does angry look like? What does happy look like? What does sad look like? You could then take things a step further and talk about WHY someone might feel sad, or angry or happy. Helping kids understand that feelings are linked to events and do not occur randomly, is super important!
- Feelings Puzzles: Help children match the name of the emotion to the face! This can lead to great discussions about how to identify different emotions in others, as well as what those emotions look and feel like in your child’s own body.
- Feelings Bingo: This is a super fun way to build awareness of emotions and to open up a discussion about your child’s own emotions and experiences. Build emotional literacy by playing it as it is, or take it a step further: every time you call out an emotion, ask the players to describe a time when they experienced that emotion!
Can’t decide on just one resource? That’s ok – I’ve bundled all 5 resources together for you here: Feelings Resource Bundle
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Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.