Seven Surprising Facts About Emotions That Every Child Needs to Know
By Guest Writer, Ann Douglas
Imagine how tough it must be to be a kid, trying to crack the code that is human emotion. Just when you think you’ve got everything all figured out, someone tosses you a curveball by reacting in a puzzling or unexpected way. Your mom is angry rather than happy about the fact that you decided to entertain your baby brother by spinning him around the room. Your baby brother seems to like it. What’s the problem? Or your teacher is annoyed rather than happy with the gift that is your latest creation. Sure, it’s still a little wet and it’s leaving a puddle on her desk, but that’s because it’s a brand new painting!
It’s a good thing kids arrive on the planet hard-wired for connection and with an insatiable curiosity about what it means to be human. This allows them to benefit from the ultimate apprenticeship in being human: the love and support of a caring adult. This is where you fit in, if you’re a parent. After all, a key part of the job description of parent involves helping kids to learn how to navigate the complex world of human emotions. That means helping your child to make sense of the following seven surprising facts about emotions—facts that are critically important to functioning well in relationships, but that tend to be anything but intuitive to a newbie to the world of emotions.
Here’s what you need to know about each of these facts plus some fun ways to support your child in learning about them.
1. People express feelings a variety of ways.
If humans were robots, we’d be able to read one another’s emotions predictably and easily. Sure, that would make life easier at times, but it would also make life a whole lot less interesting. What makes life and relationships interesting, after all, is the fact that different people can react in different ways to the very same situation—reactions that are revealed by everything from body language to our facial expressions to the words we use.
GAME: Eye Spy Emotions: One of the best ways to help your child understand this concept is by giving him the opportunity to experience it for himself by playing the emotional world equivalent of the classic children’s game “eye spy.” Encourage him to note the wide range of emotions on display in a particular situation—for example, when people are waiting in line for a ride at the amusement park. (Odds are you’ll see a range of emotions on display: everything from eager anticipation to complete and utter terror!) You’ll also want to talk about the fact that even people who are experiencing the exact same emotion can react in dramatically different ways. Some people become very fidgety when they’re anxious, while others fall asleep.
2. People can mask their emotions.
This is a hard lesson for everyone to learn—the fact that the artificial smile plastered on someone’s face isn’t necessarily revealing that person’s entire emotional truth. Sure, your best friend may be saying how much she likes the book you just gave her for her birthday, but there’s something funny about her smile. You can encourage your child to understand why a friend might choose to react this way (your friend doesn’t want to disappoint you by pointing out that she’s already read the book) and to think about situations when she might have chosen to respond in a similar way. You’ll also want to talk about the downside of masking your emotions as opposed to being upfront and honest about them. If you act like everything’s just fine when, in fact, it’s not, you miss out on the opportunity to tap into support from people who care about you—or you end up with two copies of the same book!
ACTIVITY: Emotion Masks: Make a set of emotion masks (a face drawn on a paper plate works well). Practice wearing one mask while portraying another (e.g., wearing the “happy” mask while acting angry)—and then come up with some real-world examples of how and why this could happen.
3. Emotions can be triggered by something happening inside of you or outside of you.
It’s easier to make sense of emotions once you understand the concept of triggers—the idea that emotions can be brought on by something that’s happening inside of you or outside of you. Kids need to understand that the cause of someone’s emotions isn’t always obvious. For example, it’s a beautiful day and you’re having fun with your friend when suddenly she starts crying. You look around you and you can’t figure out what could possibly be making her feel sad. The two of you were having so much fun until a minute ago. What could have happened to make her so sad? Did a bee sting her? Did she think of something sad (like the fact that her grandmother is in the hospital)? Or is it something else entirely? Sometimes the only way to know for sure what’s going on with another person is to talk to that person about what they’re thinking or feeling. Sure you could guess about what’s going on with your friend—but that guess could be wrong.
GAME: Emotion Detective: Give your child the opportunity to play emotion detective. The next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie together, ask your child to suggest some reasons why a particular character might be exhibiting a particular emotion. Did something happen to him? Is he thinking about something? What are some other possibilities? Can your child think of situations from in his life when he reacted in a similar way?
4. Emotions come in different intensities, like salsas!
We don’t just experience a wide range of emotions. We also experience a range of different intensities of emotions. And just as we need to take into account the nature of the underlying emotion, we also need to pay attention to the intensity of that emotion too. This applies to both the emotions we experience ourselves and the emotions we observe in other people. Here’s what this means in practical terms: If you’re the one whose feeling furious, you’ll want to take time to calm yourself before you do or say something you might regret. And if it’s your friend who’s the one who is feeling furious, you’ll want to acknowledge the intensity of their feelings, perhaps by mirroring that intensity through your tone of voice or body language or both. It’s a way to let your friend know that they’ve been heard and understood.
GAME: Emotional Charades: Give your child the opportunity to practice tuning into the intensity of emotions by playing a game of emotional charades. Portray an emotion using actions, facial expressions, and sounds (but no words) and then ask your child to guess which emotion and what intensity of emotion you are portraying. Are you a little bit excited or over-the-moon excited? Are you a little bit scared or are you terrified? Then ask her to take a turn portraying an emotion, too.
5. An emotion can become more intense or less intense, depending on what else is going on.
Emotions can build on one another or cancel one another out. If you’re having a bad day and something else happens to make it even worse, your feelings of frustration are likely to zoom even higher. But if a friend drops by to bring you an unexpected treat, that feeling of frustration might disappear altogether.
ACTIVITY: Jenga Tower of Emotions: Help your child to understand how emotions play off one another by making a block tower using a set of Jenga blocks (or similar). Add a layer or two of blocks to your tower to represent a foundation of happy experiences—and then remove a block or two to represent life’s more difficult experiences. Your child will see that the tower remains standing as long as there are more happy versus unhappy experiences. (If you remove too many blocks, the entire tower will come tumbling down!).
6. It is possible to experience more than one emotion at the same time.
Imagine putting on layers of emotion, like you might put on layers of clothing. Sometimes those layers clash and sometimes they work reasonably well together. It’s the same way with emotions. You can be both excited and anxious about the first day at a new school, for example.
ACTIVITY: Color Me Emotional: Teach your child about the concept of mixed emotions by mixing colors on a palette. You might decide to use yellow to represent happiness and red to represent anger, for example. If you’re mostly feeling happy, but you’re feeling a little bit frustrated at the same time, you’ll end up with a more “yellowish” result than you would if the opposite were true (you were mostly feeling angry, but something made you happy momentarily, in which case you’d end up with an angry-looking shade of orange!)
7. Everyone needs to work on regulating their emotions.
The final fact that kids need to understand about emotions is that everyone needs to make a conscious effort to making their emotions work for (and not against) them. This skill doesn’t necessarily come easily to anyone and we don’t develop this skill overnight. But it is a skill that we can acquire with practice over time. And that’s good news for all of us—kids and grownups alike.
ACTIVITY: Emotion Journal: Help your child make sense of her most intense and overwhelming emotions by keeping an emotion journal. Encourage her to identify situations that cause her particularly difficulty so that she can learn how to spot and manage the associated emotional triggers. Make sure she notes situations that she handles particularly well as opposed to simply zeroing in on situations where she stumbled. You want her to be able to celebrate the progress she’s making in learning to make sense of and manage her emotions.
CONFIDENT PARENTS, CONFIDENT KIDS’ NOTE:
For any parents who are seriously concerned about their children’s behaviors whether those behaviors are affecting their schooling, ability to get along with others, or deal with social anxiety, I urge you to check out this book. Ann discusses the often uncomfortable, sometimes disturbing timeframe parents and kids endure coping with challenges before they receive help. She writes about the “Parent Radar” and how critical it is to really pay attention and listen to your intuition about your child and his/her needs. This book has the potential to help many! Check it out. Thanks for sharing your wisdom here, Ann!
Adapted from related material in Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Hope, and Healing When Your Child Has Psychological Problems by Ann Douglas (Guilford Press). http://www.guilford.com/books/Parenting-Through-the-Storm/Ann-Douglas/9781462526772/reviews
Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including, most recently Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Hope, and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems (Guilford Press). Her website is anndouglas.net and she is @anndouglas on Twitter.