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Naming Those Big Feelings

“My friends left me out today. No one likes me.”

It can be hard for adults to know how to respond to children’s painful feelings. We want to reassure them that they are valued, and one very human response is to try to talk them out of self-defeating perspectives. (“Your friends like you so much. Why don’t you just play with someone else?)

Yet our role as adults isn’t to teach children to throw off big feelings like a dog shaking off water, but to help them label those strong emotions. Finding words for feelings helps people of every age to manage big emotions and move on. (“You were looking forward to being with your friend, and it sounds like you’re feeling sad and disappointed it didn’t work out.”)

Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, author of the bestselling book The Whole Brain Child, calls this process “name it and tame it.” He says that giving words to feelings stimulates the thinking part of the brain and triggers neurotransmitters to begin to calm the nervous system. One mother found that this process was a lifesaver when her two sons, who were home all day together sheltering in place, had a fight. Stopping and asking each boy to simply state his feelings helped the issues to resolve peacefully.

The practice of naming difficult emotions can also help to reduce anxiety in a classroom. One of our highly experienced preschool teachers observed that her class seemed to be going through some of the typical pre-kindergarten jitters. At circle time, she asked children to share their feelings about kindergarten, emphasizing that people can have two perspectives at once. The children bravely described their complex emotions: “I’m excited, but I’m really scared.” The teacher was thrilled that after this discussion, the atmosphere of the class became more relaxed.

Kindergarten teacher Annette Brown has worked with her students this year to help them learn mindfulness practices and has created a feelings journal and feelings chart for them to use. You’ll find them here, on her blog.


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