How and Why to Teach Kids Emotional Literacy

posted: 08/06/18
by: Katie Morton

As parents, we all hope to raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted children. We entrust pediatricians with our children's physical health and rely on teachers to provide them with the academic skillset they need to succeed in the classroom. One of the lesser talked about keys to raising a well-adjusted child is emotional literacy, which encompasses the ability to understand, express, and manage one's own emotions and the emotions of others in a healthy manner.

Emotional literacy has been linked to a variety of positive outcomes, including enhanced emotion regulation, empathy, social functioning, problem solving, academic achievement, motivation, and psychological well-being.

The following strategies are intended to guide you toward fostering emotional literacy through your daily interactions with your children.

1. Expand your emotional vocabulary.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to work as a chef if you had never learned the names of the ingredients that made up your recipes, or how much you would struggle to solve a math problem if you had never learned to count? Similarly, learning to express, interpret, and act on emotions depends on being able to learn the names of a wide variety of sentiments.

An expansive emotional vocabulary enables us to name our feelings, recognize those feelings in others, and manage different emotions in a healthy way. In order to help expand emotional vocabulary, consider the following approaches:

2. Be specific when talking about emotions.

Be mindful and precise in the words you use to answer questions about feelings. How often do we respond to the question of "how do you feel?" with the standard answers of "fine" or "okay"? These answers come easily, but they are also problematic. Not only are "fine" and "okay" not actual feelings, but you are also missing out on an opportunity to increase emotional literacy by discussing your genuine feelings.

When labeling feelings, make use of the broad spectrum of emotion. Just as the color blue comes in different shades--turquoise, teal, sky blue, cerulean--feelings also exist along a continuum. "Mad" could mean frustrated, irritable, or furious, and the experience of each of these emotions is very different. Instead of relying solely on sad, mad, and happy to describe the way you or your child feels, expand your feelings vocabulary to more accurately capture the underlying emotions.

Don't focus on thoughts at the expense of feelings. Many people find that thoughts are easier to identify and express than feelings. After all, we have a constant stream of chatter running through our minds and it's easy to tune in to certain thoughts without paying attention the feelings behind them. For children (and, let's be real, for adults, too), "it isn't fair" is an all too common refrain. What can be easy to overlook are the feelings behind that sentiment. Perhaps the child is feeling confused, disappointed, hurt, ashamed, frustrated, or even livid. As parents, it is tempting to shut down the "it isn't fair" conversation out of habit, but doing so each and every time means losing out on the opportunity to explore and manage the underlying emotions.

3. Engage in discussions related to emotions.

Being that we live in a world full of people, there is no shortage of opportunities to observe raw, unfiltered social interactions. This could take the form of people watching or it could involve watching television shows or reading books together.

Identify and label the feelings of the people you see, taking care to focus on their facial expressions, body language, and any precipitating events that might clue you in to their current emotional state. Practice makes perfect, and practicing on strangers may be a less threatening way to begin a course of emotional education and initiate a dialogue about feelings. The exercise of observing other people may also help to foster empathy through a focus on understanding the emotions of others.

4. Model healthy social interactions.

From infancy, children are primed to absorb information from their environment. Albert Bandura's social learning theory suggests that new behaviors can be learned through observation alone, which suggests that the classic aphorism "do as I say, not as I do" may not be an effective means of ensuring children absorb the lessons we most want to communicate. In order to teach children to manage their emotions in a healthy way, leading by example is key.

Talking about the events of each day and the feelings they bring up as part of the regular dinner table discussion is a great way to integrate emotion education and modeling in daily family interactions. Parents can also model positive social interactions based around emotions - for example, by comforting another child who falls and gets hurt on the playground, or by communicating assertively that you are feeling overwhelmed and would appreciate some help with household chores.

Over time, children will begin to observe patterns and attempt these behaviors in their own daily actions. Encourage children with praise and positive attention when they make attempts to express their feelings, navigate difficult social situations (e.g., sharing toys or resolving an argument with a friend), or demonstrate empathy for others.

5. Teach positive coping skills for managing difficult emotions.

In addition to developing the language that is the required foundation of emotional literacy, children must also learn strategies for managing their feelings. It is helpful to have a wide repertoire of coping skills, as the best strategy depends largely on the context and the environment. For example, some children prefer to cope with frustration by removing themselves and spending some time alone, cooling off. However, this is not always the best option in the classroom, where a few deep belly breaths could have a similar impact without requiring children to remove themselves and miss part of the lesson.

Journaling can be a helpful way to process feelings of jealousy or fear, but certain situations require a more immediate resolution. It is important to remember that though parents have significantly more life experience, children should also be regarded as experts of their own experiences. Brainstorm coping strategies with your children, but don't disregard their own unique ideas and solutions.

6. Create healthy boundaries as necessary, but reserve your judgments.

Guilt and shame are toxic emotions and can damage children's self-esteem. Though certain behaviors (e.g., violence) cannot be tolerated, children should never be made to feel ashamed of their emotions.

Creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere in which children feel safe expressing the big feelings they're still learning to manage will go a long way toward fostering the emotional connection between parents and their children, as well as increasing emotional literacy as children continue to explore their feelings in the safety of their home.

As a parent, you are your child's first and most important teacher, and the lessons you share will shape their emotional literacy as they enter school and navigate social situations in the "real world." Your children will be better equipped to handle whatever life throws their way if you take steps to increase their emotional literacy in the home.