The Language of Emotion
I work with children who can’t communicate their feelings easily. Some children who can’t speak at all give up on using subtle behaviors because they’re ignored or misunderstood by others. They may use extreme behaviors to get others’ attention. If these children are taught effective ways to express their feelings, negative behaviors often diminish or even disappear. Our feelings always come out, one way or another!
As a speech-language pathologist, it’s my job to notice children’s’ communication skills. Do they have ways to express themselves when they feel things? Do they have the vocabulary to express their emotions? Do they have scripts to express their emotions?
Recently, a mother asked me to work with her child to help him express his feelings. First we made sure he had the basic vocabulary of emotions such as happy, sad, angry, proud, etc. We looked at the facial expressions that go with these words (With older children, we look up the basic words in a thesaurus to discover the many words that can be used). Sometimes we played games with emotional faces and decided which emotions they represented. We chose from lists of emotions and acted them out in pantomime for the other person to guess. We talked about what makes people feel these emotions. Did he ever feel them and when?
Still, this child almost always told me he was happy and stayed away from those other scary emotions. But the biggest improvement came when I made two yellow triangles to represent the degrees of emotional feelings: BIG (bottom portion of the triangle), MEDIUM (center portion), or LITTLE (up at the top). We used one in his speech language sessions and one went on his home refrigerator. Having a visual representation of the degree of his emotions apparently freed him to explain how he felt throughout his day. “It was a big sad,” he told me when his grandmother’s dog died.
If your children have trouble expressing their feelings, another thing you can do to help them is to model your thinking process aloud for them. Just say what you’re thinking out loud, such as: “Sometimes when people promise things and don’t do what they promise, it makes me feel very disappointed.” Children are often relieved to discover that adults feel the same ways they do. Just make sure you express yourself in a quiet, factual way; that way it’s not scary and it shows it’s okay for your children to express their own feelings. Your goal is to make it feel safe for them to talk to you about their feelings anytime.
Give your child “scripts” to express feelings and desires that are hard for them. Think about what you would say if you felt like they do and give them two choices for expressing it effectively. For example, when a child pushed my arm away from his blocks, I told him to tell me either that he doesn’t want me to help right now or that he wants to do it himself this time. He immediately repeated, “I want to do this myself this time.” We both felt better about the interchange.
And don’t forget to ask about their feelings after you’ve ventured out for a Hilltown Families event, the upcoming Hilltown Families’ Family Community Service Night! Was it a big, medium, or a little feeling? For me, going to a Hilltown Families event is always a Big Happy!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at kathypuckett.com