Emotional Literacy: How Can I Help my Child tap into the Power of Feelings? Part I

Your daughter and her friend have a conflict when her friend betrays a secret. Your daughter draws on her sadness and anger for strength to assertively (not aggressively) express her feelings and stand up for herself.

Your daughter recognizes that she feels stressed and overwhelmed, unable at the moment to tackle the stack of homework that she’s lugged home in her weighty back pack. Tuning into what her body & mind needs, she has a snack and rests for half an hour before digging in to the task at hand.

Your daughter is hanging out at the Paseo on Friday night with friends. She gets a creepy feeling about a situation she’s in with some other teens she’s just met. Her head says, “don’t be silly; don’t make a scene.” Her feelings say, “get out of here and get to safety!” She listens to her feelings.

Feelings matter! In each of these situations, the daughter uses her feelings – to resolve a conflict, to engage in self-care, to keep herself safe. Naming feelings helps us manage them in healthy ways. Awareness of feelings provides us with wisdom; and, it can be a positive source of energy. Great stuff, right? So, how can we help our children tap into the power of their feelings? How can we help them develop their emotional literacy?

Emotional Literacy refers to the language of emotions. We can help children and teens understand their internal world through the use of words that describe feelings and connect feelings to thoughts and behaviors.

Why is emotional literacy important? It gives us all a greater understanding of what we are feeling. It allows us to build coping mechanisms to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. When children understand their feelings and accept them as normal, they are more empowered to make healthy choices. Ultimately it can increase confidence, self-esteem, and self-acceptance. Understanding the world of feelings can also increase compassion and empathy toward others.

Validation: So, how can we support our children in developing this awesome power? Take time to validate your child’s feelings and emotional experiences. Listening, mirroring and reflecting back your child’s experience is a great way to start. The simple act of labeling feelings and offering supportive feedback can make a significant difference.
• “Sounds like you feel pretty angry about that.”
• “Ya feel sad?”
• “Wow–that would make me feel really proud!”
• “I can tell you are disappointed; nevertheless, it’s time to go to bed.”

Sounds good–but then, there is reality: you get off work and have to pick up the kids, make it to the soccer game, pick up dry cleaning, run by the grocery store, cook dinner, walk the dog, and help with homework. When your 10 year old daughter decides to throw a tantrum over the dinner choice, the following words spill out of your mouth: “Oh, stop being so dramatic”; “This is ridiculous, you need to get over it;” or “I don’t care how you feel about chicken–it’s what’s for dinner!”

So, do these moments mean you have failed the “validating parent” test? Absolutely not. They mean you are human. At one time or another we all make statements like this. The issue is: how often do we make these statements, in contrast to how often we validate our child’s feelings? Balance is important. Here are three steps to keep in mind:
Validate feelings: Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Validation does not mean you have to agree with your child or accept their behaviors. Validating your child’s feelings lets them know that what they are feeling is important, that it is normal, and that whether it is negative or positive, it can be worked through.
Label feelings: Give your child words for their feelings. This helps a child understand their internal world, what their feelings are about and how they are expressed and handled through events, thoughts and behaviors.
Listen: Give your child space to express their most private, innermost feelings. Give them the confidence that they will be heard and it is safe.

Next month, more tips to build emotional literacy. Meantime, check out these websites.
http://www.eqi.org: A comprehensive website with articles on emotions, emotional intelligence, teen issues, parenting, schooling and references to authors and books.
http://www.eq.org is a good website to link to other articles on emotional intelligence.
http://www.emotionalliteracyeducation.com provides further information on emotional literacy.

Dr. Georgina Smith’s dissertation research on this topic is entitled: Development and Validation of a Psychometric Scale to Measure Adults’ Perceived Invalidation of Childhood Emotional Experiences by Parent or Primary Caregiver.

Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.

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