The last few years have been an incredibly challenging time for many families. Between new stressors at home and school, children are often caught in the middle. But figuring out just how your kids are feeling (and why) is a challenge in itself! Young children may not have the words to express how they’re feeling, and older children may experience new social discomfort with expressing what’s on their minds. The good news is, no matter how big your little ones are, there are strategies you can use to have a successful “Feelings Check-In” with your child.
For Preschool (Ages 3 to 5)
At this age, the biggest obstacles to your child’s successful self-expression are a limited vocabulary and limited self-regulation skills. There are few key strategies you’ll want to use to help them talk out their feelings:
First, wait until they are feeling calm. When kids are upset (including crying or tantruming), the prefrontal cortex of their brains is effectively shut down— and that means that, no matter how much we encourage them to “use their words,” they are going to struggle. Focus instead on calming strategies, like offering a hug, guiding deep breathing, and finding a quiet, soothing place to rest. Come back to these strategies frequently to help your child self-regulate when they have “big feelings.”
When the child is calm, try using a feelings chart or book about feelings to help the child identify how they were feeling. You can also use “I noticed” frames to help them, such as: “I noticed you were crying. Were you feeling sad, angry, or frustrated?”
- Talking about shared experiences: “It seems like your friend had a really big feeling in the park today. Tell me more about that.”
- Talking about television or movies: “That character was smiling so much when her dad came home! How do you think she was feeling?”
- Pointing out facial expressions in books or pictures. “That person’s eyebrows are low and his mouth is turned down. What feeling does that look like to you?”
For Lower Elementary (Ages 6-8)
By this age range, most children have a basic capacity to express their emotions using vocabulary like happy, sad, mad, or frustrated. They may be able to tell you what they are feeling, even while upset. However, they are also beginning to experience more complex emotions than they have words for, and need support talking through new definitions.
For example, if Mira and Jackson are playing together, and Mira takes some of Jackson’s snack without asking, Jackson might be upset, and tell an adult that he was “mad.” But expressing that might not help him much, especially if what he’s feeling is a betrayal of trust, being taken for granted, or protectiveness of his belongings. He doesn’t have the words for those feelings yet!
A successful feelings check-in will meet Jackson at his level, and provide support to articulate subtler emotions for the next time. It might look something like this:
- Start with what you notice in an open conversation, without guiding the child toward any specific answer: “I noticed you were upset during snack time today. Can you tell me more about what happened?”
- When the child identifies a basic emotion, validate their experience and try to extend it to new knowledge: “Thank you for telling me you felt angry. There are lots of different kinds of angry: sometimes we feel angry when someone hurts us, when someone hurts people or belongings that are important to us, or when someone disappoints us. What kind of angry did you feel today?”
- Last, check in on how the feeling affected them physically, especially if it was a negative feeling. Sometimes, really big feelings can have lasting physical effects, and children can benefit from supporting their bodies as well as their minds. “What did it feel like in your body when you felt angry and disappointed? Let’s think of some ways to relax or stretch to help take care of our bodies.”
For Upper Elementary (Ages 9-12)
By this age range, most children have developed a number of successful self-regulation skills for negative emotions (such as deep breathing, counting to ten, finding a quiet place, etc.) and may use a wider vocabulary to express their feelings and moods, such as: joyful, stressed, excited, disappointed, betrayed, depressed, furious, uncomfortable, or anxious.
However, children at this age start to experience new social stressors and become more intensely aware of what is and isn’t “appropriate.” They may question: If I am angry with a friend, does it betray their trust to tell an adult? Will my friend become more angry with me? Or, what if I’m excited about something and it’s not cool or interesting to other people? If I express what I’m thinking or feeling, will I be teased? Taken seriously? Brushed off?
Try relieving these social pressures during your feelings check-in by creating a regular schedule (for example, Thursday evenings after dinner) and setting special norms. Some helpful norms (or “ground rules”) are:
- One speaker at a time. It may be helpful to use a “talking stick” or similar item.
- We listen to understand, not to judge. Make sure your child knows you want to see and understand the whole picture. The feelings check-in is never a place a child should worry about getting in trouble.
- The conversation stays private. Your child doesn’t have to worry that you’ll repeat what they said to their friend’s mom or anyone else.
Start with open prompts, such as:
- What were your most powerful feelings this week? When did they happen?
- Do you have worries about anything going on at school or at home?
- What were your hills and valleys this week? (High points and low points)
- What are some things you want to do better for yourself?
- What did others do for you that brought you joy? What did you do to help others?
Model successful examples by sharing child-appropriate experiences from your own life, such as:
- Feeling worried about an upcoming storm in the weather forecast
- Feeling joyful when someone you love experiences a success at work or school
- Feeling victorious when you accomplish a new personal challenge
- Feeling stressed about finishing an important chore or task
It may take time for your child to trust this new routine, but you may see them looking forward to your daily or weekly session as a time to connect and grow in a safe, nurturing environment.
- From Social Emotional Workshop: Feelings Check-In and Feelings Posters for Counseling and SEL
- From Edutopia: For families who want to extend a feelings check-in into a “community circle” event at home, try using these tips for educators who use restorative circles in their classroom.
- From EdSurge: 10 Ways Parents Can Bring Social-Emotional Learning Home