Children (and adults) can experience an array of intense feelings sometimes at what seems like a drop of a hat. These overwhelming, big feelings and body sensations quickly flood the right brain while the left brain is forgotten, causing what you’ll see as crying, high emotionality, acting out, tantruming, meltdowns, and other problematic behaviors.
First let me start by explaining that our brains are divided into two hemispheres: the left and the right brain.
The left brain:
- loves and desires order
- logical and literal
- linear (it puts things in a sequence of order)
- cares about the letter of the law
- linguistic (it likes words)
- focuses on details and the text
- more directly influenced by the upper brain areas, which are not fully developed until your mid-twenties
The right brain, on the other hand:
- more intuitive and emotional
- focuses on the context
- gives you that “gut feeling”
- cares about the big picture, not details – “the meaning and feel of an experience”
- nonverbal, sending and receiving signals and cues that allow us to communicate through facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures
- specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories
- more directly influenced by the body and lower brain areas, which allow it to receive and interpret emotional information
In order to experience good, balanced regulation, it’s crucial that our two hemispheres work together, or integrate. An integrated brain results in improved decision making, better control of one’s body and emotions, fuller self-understanding, stronger relationships, increased empathy for others, more effective problem solving skills, and success in school and the real world.
When children become dysregulated and experience intense emotions, their right brain is dominating, meaning that they are reacting from their emotions and are sometimes (often) not thinking as rationally as they would otherwise. Small children particularly are typically right-hemisphere dominant and haven’t mastered their ability to use logic and words to express their feelings. They feel the big, strong emotions but they aren’t able to understand and communicate them clearly. As a result, the feelings can become overpowering.
We can help kids bring their left hemisphere into the picture so that they can begin to understand what’s happening and so integration between the right and left brain can occur, resulting in quicker, more effective de-escalation and being able to think more rationally and realistically.
A simple way to teach a child how to learn how to integrate their left and bright brain is to teach them how to identify and express the various emotions they might experience or feel. This starts at home, introduced and reinforced by a child’s parents or caregivers. Children as young as 10 months old can begin to understand such concepts as developmentally appropriate.
Once children are able to identify what they’re feeling, we can help them make sense of these emotions by using the left hemisphere – by bringing in logic, and if appropriate, sometimes the explanations and reasons for why their behavior might not be acceptable. Waiting until the left brain has kicked in is also a good idea for when a parent should decide to delve out the consequences for their child’s behavior. The child may still not like his or her consequences, but you’re much more likely to get a better reaction or response when their left and right hemispheres are integrated than if you start dishing out consequences while they are still wholeheartedly in their right brain.
Here are four easy feelings activities you can do with your child to help them learn how to identify their emotions and the emotions of others.
1. Use Real Life Photos
Use a camera to take pictures of your child(ren) making facial expressions depicting different emotions. Having a feelings chart handy might be beneficial. Here are a few places you can find free feelings charts. The first link will take you to the feelings charts I most frequently use with kids when I see them for therapy.
After taking pics of your child, print and cut them out in the size of playing cards. I recommend laminating them for durability if you’re able. The cards can be used in a number of ways:
- A matching game (match the emotions)
- A go fish game
- A guessing game – Have the child select one card and imitate the expression they see on the card. Have others (e.g., family members) guess how they are pretending to feel. Take turns.
- Spread the pictures all over the floor and take turns tossing a beanbag onto the cards. For whichever card the beanbag lands on, name the emotion and think of a time you may feel that way. You can also add or instead have your child imitate the facial expression.
- Create a feelings chart (see below).
- Use your imagination. Be creative! There are tons of ways you can use these cards!
2. Feelings Theater
Find (or create your own) scripts that have a lot of emotions in them. Have your child then play out a script in front of others. Emphasize the use of facial expressions and body language appropriate to each emotion. This game is even more fun if you and/or other family members get in on the action!
This is a fun way for kids to learn more about how facial expressions and body language reflect our feelings.
3. Freeze Dance
Choose someone to be the D.J. to play music. While it’s playing, have the child (and others if there are others) dance. The D.J. chooses random moments to pause or stop the music, which then signals the child(ten) to freeze in a posture and with a facial expression that reflects or matches an emotion.
As with many feelings activities, it’s a good idea to have a feelings chart on hand. When you review the various feelings with your child for this activity, give them examples of different facial expressions and body language postures commonly observed when a person is feeling the specific feeling. For example, a huge smile on your face and your arms raised in the air might indicate happy, excited, or proud; freeze with your hands on your hips and a scowl on your face to show anger or annoyance.
4. Make Your Own Feelings Chart
A simple way to assist your child in identifying and communicating their feelings is a Feelings Chart. You can find a number of such charts for free or for cost online, or your child can create one of their own. For this particular type of Feelings Chart, we want the child to be able to show the different feelings that they may feel throughout the day. The chart can be made on posterboard, cardboard, or even cardstock paper. Find some colored pencils, crayons, or markers and you should be good to go. Scissors and tape might also be good to have for this project.
Allow your child to create their chart to reflect their personality and interests. Encourage your child to be involved in the design process and determine what feelings should be included. The faces can be hand drawn or you can draw different feelings faces on stickers such as garage sale pricing stickers so you can just stick them on the chart.
After the chart is completed, hang it in the child’s room and decide when you both will review the chart together each day (bedtime is often a good choice). Explain that at any time throughout the day, the child can choose to put a face (or check next to a face) on the chart to describe how they are feeling.
Images of real kids showing various emotions can be beneficial in this activity. You can either take pictures of your own child(ten) or you can use stock images of children. Sites like pixabay.com have images you can download for free.
Use this activity as a teachable moment. Have conversations with your child about what happens to someone’s face and/or body when they feel certain ways.
There you go, there’s four simple, fun activities to try at home to help teach your kids how to identify their emotions. They are just a sample of the very same activities I often use in therapy sessions with child clients. After all, how can you expect a child to appropriately express their emotions if they aren’t able to identify or name them in the first place?