Teaching Children to Express Themselves Emotionally

Screaming toddlers. Out-of-control children. Disrespectful teenagers. Rude adults. Sometimes it seems that one thing inevitably leads to another. How can parents help their children live a better way, with a healthier emotional life? In today’s #ThursdayThoughts blog post we discuss teaching children to express themselves emotionally, and how this helps them to successfully deal with difficult times in their lives. Once again, these are Owen Connolly’s own thoughts, reproduced with his permission from his book for fathers entitled “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”.


Emotional Child

When people come into counselling sessions with me and try to express themselves, they have very few words to express how they’re feeling. Those who can’t express emotion – in extreme cases – resort to cutting themselves (self-mutilating) or overdosing as a kind of language. I would see all of these behaviours as attempts by people to communicate that something is wrong. Sadly, they don’t have sufficient emotional language to communicate this pain in other ways. Some people who come into sessions might use the language “I’m really f*cked up right now.” That may sound like a nasty word to use, but it’s the only word that has any meaning for them. Nevertheless, if you can get someone to express what that means in an emotional way, then you’re having success. “I feel uncomfortable…sad…tormented…”

Expressing Emotions Faces

There’s a huge vocabulary of emotional terms that are so important. Teaching them to your children will help them to convey what’s really going on so that they don’t have to resort to one big blast like “I hate you” or damaging accusations or words that they’ll get punished for using without someone hearing what they’re really saying.

You can find many different images on the internet with some useful emotions paired with facial expressions that you can use to help children recognise and express their own feelings, and those of others.  Making sure that children have the vocabulary to express their emotions properly, will help them navigate their lives successfully, especially through the two major difficult times of childhood.


These two very difficult times for the child are related to the “crossing over” process that we discussed in our November blog post “Addressing Our Own Unmet Needs“. The first difficult time is when the young boy is leaving mum at about eight to go across to dad. The circumstances have to be right for this to occur – he wants desperately to move across to the dad and have that loving relationship. But it’s a difficult time because the young boy feels he has to distance himself from his mum as he begins to see things more from dad’s view and wants to engage with him. And this time can be very difficult for mum too, because she finds that the little angel who was so compliant and so loving and so wonderful up to a certain point is now dismissing her or ignoring her. She finds that he’s not responding to her or to her requests as nicely as he did up until recently, and so she can be quite disappointed in her child at this stage. Similarly, it’s also difficult when the little eight-year-old girl is leaving dad to cross over to mum. The little girl will experience many conflicting emotions, while dad will feel very left out. He won’t understand why his daughter doesn’t want him around so much anymore, and, though it’s difficult for all, mum must make the conditions right for the girl to come across.

The second difficult time is when the child reaches about 16-17 and wants to leave mum and dad and have his or her independence. Now, if you understand that this is a development stage that’s part of a normal process, you’ll be feeling calmer, having already spoken to him or her about it and standing by. You and the child are prepared for it, so that when he or she does feel these feelings, it’s not such a big tug-o-war, a battle of wits, a “them and us” situation. It’s a very healthy transition. It’s important for a young man or woman of this age to feel “I can now set out on my own and start a new tribe or my own kingdom,” because that’s what independence is all about – moving away to start a new tribe or a new kingdom.


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