Riding the Rollercoaster of Emotions: How to Teach Your Children About Feelings

The rollercoaster

Imagine waiting in line to board a rollercoaster car. You are feeling excited and a little impatient. Once you board the car and are strapped in you begin to feel nervous and hesitant. Do you really want to take this ride?

Next, the car jerks and you feel scared and begin to regret your choice, but then the ride begins and you are quickly pulled along the track. As the rollercoaster begins to climb you feel tense and frightened. Then, the car rolls over the hill and speeds downward; your stomach drops and you scream, simultaneously feeling the joy of fun and helpless and overwhelmed by the fact that you have no control.

Finally, the ride pulls into the station and you feel the jubilant rush of endorphins and also sweet relief that the ride is over. Maybe you are angry or jealous that you don’t get the chance for a second ride. Or, perhaps, you feel dazed and regretful that you rode the rollercoaster.

Like a rollercoaster, life throws all kinds of emotional twists and turns and ups and downs at us, but unlike the rollercoaster, we don’t have the choice whether we ride or not.

Abby’s flu shot and my emotional ride

Today I took my daughter to the pediatrician’s office to get her influenza vaccination. From the time she entered the car until way after her shot in the thigh she cried, screamed, begged, kicked, and went limp so I couldn’t easily carry her.

I knew she was scared. I knew she was anxious. I told her that I recognized how she was feeling and comfort her the best I could but insisted that the 10-second shot would be nothing compared to being ill with Influenza.

Abby being extremely upset started me thinking about emotions. I felt like a sham because all day I had been feeling a wide range of emotions and trying with difficulty to keep them in check.

I started my day feeling sad and disappointed after looking at photos from yesterday’s trip to the pumpkin patch. The pictures of my little family did not look anything close to what I had envisioned and hoped for. Half of them were taken at a 45-degree angle and my son was either looking at his shoes or crying because I wanted a photo without his pacifier. In the others, I was looking at the person who I thought was taking the photos but really ended up looking away from the person who was using my camera and my son’s head obstructed 75% of my face.

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I had really hoped for a lovely photo that I could share with family or make into a Christmas card. This was definitely not Pinterest-worthy, more like a Pinterest fail.

Then, I noticed how heavy I looked in the photos and that sent me down another rabbit hole of unhappiness. I felt a multitude of emotions- sadness, disgust, disappointment, dislike, anger- just to name a few.

Each day we hop on to the rollercoaster of feelings. Some of them we express, some of them we ignore, some of them we deny, some of them we push down deep inside, some of them we dwell in.

How many of us handle these feelings in a mature and healthy way and how many do not? How many of us provide a good example for our children to emulate?

I think it is important to the teach our children about emotions early. The problem is that these little people feel big emotions and don’t know how to or can’t express themselves. Crying, tantrums, throwing fits- these are just some of the ways that they act or react because they are unable to articulate their particular feelings and needs in most situations.

So how do we teach them?

Children are amazing observers. From the moment they first open their eyes, our children are watching us, listening to us, acting like us.

Encourage them to discuss how they are feeling and why they feel that way:

Can you tell me how you feel?

What made you upset?

How did you feel when ___ happened?

I can see that something is bothering you. Let’s talk about it.

You look frustrated. Can I help?

Show them facial images that correspond with emotions so that they can identify and understand their own emotions and those of others. Be sure to talk about body language and other visual cues, as well as tone of voice.

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A book we like is Roberta Intrater’s ABC Look at Me. It features a picture for an emotion or feeling for each letter A-Z. There are a large number of books, flashcards, and other options available.

Teach them about empathy and relating to others.

Validate their feelings. Remember that their feelings are just as real and just as important as our own. Don’t say things like: There’s no reason to cry or quit making a fuss about something silly. Instead respond by acknowledging their emotions:

I can see this is making you upset. Maybe we should talk about why.

I feel sad when I am not included. Is this how you are feeling?

Teach them ways to express their feelings in a positive and appropriate manner. Show them that being honest about their emotions is right, but to be respectful of others’ feelings too. There is a time and place for express how we feel.

I know that the last time we ate at Aunt Jenny’s house you didn’t like that she cooked with spices you aren’t used to, but this time instead of saying, ‘this is gross,’ or ‘I hate this soup,’ instead say ‘no thanks,’ or just don’t comment.

Some of the TV shows at Grandpa’s house might be boring, but it is not appropriate to whine and yell about it.

Use play to act out different scenarios.  By utilizing toys like dolls or even their Paw Patrol pups, you can be help kids make the connection between the individual and the emotion they are exhibiting.

When Mikey hides his head and doesn’t want to talk, I bet he might be feeling anxious or scared. What else do you think he might be feeling?

When you stomp your foot and ball up your fists I can tell you are angry.

Sometimes when people are afraid they will do ___. How do you react when you are afraid?

Let them know that to feel a wide array of emotions is normal and also that not being able to identify how they feel or why they feel a certain way is OK. Understanding emotions is a learned skill that takes practice.

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Show respect. Don’t talk down to them. When talking get down on their level, look them in the eyes, and have a real conversation.

Ask questions or create a story that will help them reflect and learn. As you watch a movie or read a book, talk about the characters and how they feel and show their emotions.

If Joe had taken the balloon from you and then popped it, how do you think it would have made you feel?

What do you think is something we could do to make Fannie feel better?

Victoria’s daddy had to travel somewhere far away for the Army. What do you think she is feeling? Is there anything that might help?

Give them a playbook of different ways they can deal with their emotions, such as taking a break from a situation, asking for help, talking with a friend, counting to ten, deep breathing, and more.

Want more?

This is a big topic that I have tried to simplify. If you have concerns about your child and their emotional responses, please speak to your family physician or pediatrician.

There are many great resources available online if you wish to dive deeper. The website Powerful Mothering has a great post on teaching kids about emotions, which includes 31 activities and printables to use to help your kids learn. Click on the link to go there.

What have you done to help your kids learn about their feelings?

I would love to hear from you!

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2 thoughts on “Riding the Rollercoaster of Emotions: How to Teach Your Children About Feelings

  1. rebekahmorse says:

    This is great info, Sarah! I know I’ve been guilty of saying things like, “There’s no need to cry” and “You’re fine” but lately have been trying to offer more validation and let them know it’s okay to feel whatever they feel. I’m definitely a work in progress!

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