It’s not easy, even for adults, to put feelings into words. Especially when feelings are intense or complicated, children often struggle to be able to talk about how they’re feeling. Here’s a simple technique that I often use with children and teens in my practice.
Step 1: List possible feelings
- Work together to come up with a list of possible feelings. Write each on a separate index card. Consider the broad categories of sad, mad, scared, and happy. Include words to reflect various forms and intensities and to fit the child’s circumstances.
- For instance, the sad family might include: sad, disappointed, discouraged, lonely, grieving.
- The scared family might include: scared, worried, overwhelmed, anxious, terrified.
- The mad family might include: mad, furious, annoyed, irritated, frustrated.
- The happy family might include: happy, excited, content, grateful, loving.
- Also include more subtle, self-oriented feelings: proud, guilty, ashamed, jealous.
In addition, I usually include two made-up feeling labels: “prickly,” which I describe as “that feeling when everything bothers you,” and “lumpish,” which means having low energy. Leave one card blank so the child can add any feeling that might have been left off the list.
Step 2: Sort the feelings
- Have the child sort the feelings cards into three piles.
- On the left is the “yes” pile, for cards that describe how he or she is feeling right now.
- On the right is the “no” pile, for cards that don’t fit the child’s current feelings.
- In the middle is the “maybe a little” pile.
Step 3: Discuss the feelings
Once the cards are sorted, go through each card in the yes pile and have the child explain to you what is making him or her feel that way. If there are few or no cards in the yes pile, have the child explain the “maybe a little” pile.
Just listen. Don’t correct, debate, or dismiss your child’s feelings. When your child is done explaining, say, “Thank you for telling me.” That may be enough. Or, if your child seems open to it, you could then shift to talking about how to cope.
Once you have the cards, you or the child can pull them out anytime as a communication tool. For instance, you might say, “It looks like you’re having some strong feelings right now. Let’s use the cards so you can tell me how you’re feeling.”
Learning about feelings
This technique gives children practice wrapping their feelings up in words, which makes them seem more understandable and therefore more manageable. It makes emotion labeling easier because they just have to recognize feelings rather than hunt for words for them. And it helps them slow things down, so they’re thinking about how they’re feeling, rather than acting impulsively.
Feelings cards also help kids understand two important facts about emotional experience. First, we rarely have just one feeling at a time. Our emotional experience is usually a patchwork quilt of different feelings. Second, feelings change. Whatever they’re experiencing right now won’t last. An hour, a day, or a week from now, they’re likely to experience a different combination of feelings.