Many young children like to look at family photos. Take the opportunity to talk about emotions that family members are feeling. For example, wedding photos will be filled with happy people. Point out their smiles and their expressions. This could be a good opportunity to point out that someone who is crying isn’t always sad. In some cases it can mean someone is very happy.
Get a poster, or draw one with your child, of faces with different emotions. Ask your child to identify one of the emotions on the poster and when she last felt this way and why. Ask her how she’s feeling now and why she feels that way. This will increase her vocabulary while also helping her more accurately identify her emotions.
For example, if she seems angry or frustrated, teacher Clare Morrison suggests saying, “I noticed your eyebrows are closer together and your arms are folded. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.” By prompting your child to talk about her feelings as she’s having them, you can help her identify her feelings. Try not to label her emotion for her by saying, “You look mad” or “You look sad.” Instead, let her give a name for the way she is feeling as she begins to connect her body language to an emotion.
When a child shows interest in an activity or topic, it is often because she has a strength related to it. One of the best ways to help your child understand and value her strengths is to encourage her ideas and interests. You can begin to do this by asking her what she likes or noting a topic she talks a great deal about. Nurture her interest by finding related activities. For example, you can both take part in volunteering at an animal shelter if she’s interested in cats. Whatever the activity may be, by encouraging your child’s interests, you are helping to define and enhance her strengths and build her confidence.
Take opportunities everyday to help your child identify the feelings of others. How does his face look when he feels that way? Pointing out emotions in others is a good way to help your child begin to understand those feelings in herself. Teacher Clare Morrison suggests also asking, “Show me what happy looks like for you,” and, “What does sad look like to you?” By making a facial expression, your child is better-able to connect the emotion to her own body language.
Try not to give your child a phone, tablet, or other electronic device every time you find yourselves waiting for a doctor’s appointment, picking up a sibling from school, or waiting for food to arrive in a restaurant. There’s value for your child in learning to control himself in situations where he’s not entertained.
On a large piece of paper or dry-erase board, work with your child to outline getting ready for bed or school. You can cut pictures out of magazines, like toothbrushes or backpacks, to add to the paper. Map out what is done first and what is done last. Do you start with brushing teeth and then getting dressed? Clearly labeling what is expected of your child helps him act accordingly. He will likely need reminding and reinforcing at times, but showing him what is expected is a good place to start. If your child has difficulty with routines, try breaking them into smaller steps.
Most parents have moments when they are upset. At these times, tell your family you need a small break to calm down. Take this time to think about how to come back to the situation in a positive manner. Your child will see you taking these steps to calm yourself and will be more likely to use this technique himself. You can also talk with your child as you calm yourself down. Head of St. Louis-based New City School, Tom Hoerr suggest saying things like, “I’m going to take some deep breaths and count 1, 2, 3.” One of the best ways you can teach your child about self-management is to model it yourself.
For example, play grocery store and have him pretend to be the cashier. As he pretends, he is learning self-management by acting like the cashier. Instead of doing something he might have a sudden urge to do, like pet the family dog, he continues to scan your pretend groceries.
Take opportunities every day to help your child identify feelings in others. While watching TV or reading a book, pause and ask your child what she thinks a character is feeling. How does his face look when he feels that way? Pointing out emotions in others is a good way to help your child begin to understand those feelings in herself. Teacher Clare Morrison suggests also asking, “Show me what happy looks like for you,” and, “What does sad look like to you?” By making a facial expression, your child is better-able to connect the emotion to her own body language.
Pay attention to your child’s natural calming strategies. For example, he might naturally look for comfort in a pillow or blanket, or he might try to walk away from upsetting situations. Some children may feel better simply by making silly faces or noises until they calm down. Understanding your child’s natural tendencies for calming can help you encourage those behaviors at other times. You can also help identify a special place for him to calm down, and let him choose what to call the space. Some examples could be the “safe place” or the “peace corner.” Teaching your child that it is O.K. to take some time to collect himself will allow him to take the initiative and do it on his own. It can be best to practice this before your child is upset, so that he can return to the technique or space at times when he is upset.
A good way to teach your child about body language, emotions, and empathy is to have her play a game of “Feelings Charades.” You can use flash cards with different faces, or even write emotions or behaviors that hurt others on pieces of paper and let your child pick one out of a hat. Take turns acting out the way a person would be feeling with either the emotion that’s on the paper or the face that’s on the card. This will help start discussions on topics that a child this age might be reluctant to talk about otherwise.
Take a conversation you had with a friend, family member, or clerk at the supermarket that your child has witnessed and ask her to point out the language, body language and facial expressions that were exchanged. You can also role play with her stuffed animals or favorite toys to show what she would have done in that situation. Even though your child was present when you had this exchange, it’s always a good idea to ask her what she thinks happened, how people felt, and how she could tell this, before you provide your own interpretation of the situation.
If you have pets, you can also use them to help teach your child about social awareness. A dog or a cat, for example, will behave in specific ways when it is feeling happy, angry, playful or tired. Point out these behaviors to your child as they appear, and explain to her how these emotions are similar to those experienced by the people around her.
Be specific when you are talking about what’s appropriate and what’s not, and provide her with visual cues. For example, you can have her stretch out her arms and explain that this is her personal space, and that she should provide other children with that much space when interacting with them. Remind her that when she gets too close to another person or touches them, they might react negatively. You can also use stuffed animals or action figures to act out what’s appropriate and what is not.
Think about how you interact with your family and friends, and how you make and keep friends. Is your behavior setting a good example for your child? Are there certain relationships or areas that you can work on? Evaluating your own relationship skills is a crucial step in teaching your child about social management, and by being reflective, responsive and supportive, you are helping to nurture your child’s sense of social and emotional well-being.
Ask your child who her friends are, and then ask her about the qualities that she looks for in a friend and how she likes her friends to treat her. For example, ask her, “Why do you like to play with Jamal after school? What makes him a good friend?” Make sure to ask her about qualities that she doesn’t like, and what makes her a good friend to others. For example, “Has Shannon ever said anything that made you feel sad?”
A helpful approach is to ask good questions about what she thinks she should do in any situation, and what the consequences of her particular solution will be. For example, if she is having a hard time with a classmate, you can say, “If your friend doesn’t want to play with you, you might want to ask her if you did anything to hurt her feelings. Do you think you should say sorry? If you say sorry, she might feel better. If she did something to you, maybe you can ask her why she did that.” You may not be around to solve any difficulties that occur, and it is better to start helping your child build this essential skill when she is young and problems are less serious.
Don’t be satisfied with one-word answers. Often, parents have a lot on their plate and are happy to keep discussions brief, but children need practice in expressing themselves clearly and completely. Make sure to point out when she says something that is thoughtful or when she uses her language skills appropriately. For example, when she says something kind about others, like, “Sally was nice to me today because she shared her snacks with me,” or if she poses a good question during your conversation, “Can I take some snacks to share with Sally tomorrow?” When she asks something that is not related to what you are talking about or not clearly expressed, help her stay within the conversation.
Ask your child to help make her favorite dish by following your directions, one at a time. Make sure to say “please” and “thank you” and acknowledge all of her efforts. This will not only help her learn about the art of listening, but teach her about the importance of being polite to others, especially while working on group projects.
Adults and children make bad choices at times, and supporting your child through hard decisions and poor choices shows you love her unconditionally. Of course you want to point out that some choices are not acceptable, but if she makes the same mistake again, make sure to reinforce you still love her. You can also help her make up for those mistakes. Did she hurt a friend? Have her write an apology note and ask for forgiveness.
Books that center on characters that have to make decisions, like the Berenstain Bears series, are a great option. Pause when the characters get to the problem. Ask your child what she thinks the bears should do, and what she thinks will happen. Talk about the problem as you’re reading, using terms like, “How would you solve this problem?” or, “What is the problem again?” and “What should Sister Bear do now?” This is a great opportunity to ask your child about problems she has faced recently and how she was able to solve them. For more age-appropriate book examples, see our reading list.
For example, you could focus on things like what you’re planning to buy at the grocery store. Talk through your plans for making dinners, what ingredients you think you’ll need and why you’ll choose what you will. Why are you going to make tacos instead of pasta? What are the health implications of the items you’re buying and why do you choose them? Are you trying to make sure everyone in the family has something they like to eat this week? Maybe you’ve decided to make pancakes for dinner one night for a change of pace, or you’re planning to put broccoli in the mac and cheese to get a vegetable into the mix. This gives an opportunity for your child to see the decision-making process in action and understand that even simple decisions like what brand of tomato sauce to buy have reasoning behind them. Alternatively, you may make a choice that doesn’t have reasoning behind it, like choosing a sweet potato over a plain potato. Letting your child see that some decisions can’t be explained will be a comfort at this young age, when your child is likely unable to give a reason behind most of her decisions.
This can help give her tools she can use to make her own decisions in the future. Ask her questions like, “What do you think will happen if we don’t wear our coats outside today?” or, “If you don’t go to sleep on time, what do you think you’ll be like at school tomorrow?” or, “How do you think your sister will feel if you play with her favorite toy without asking?” Taking another person’s perspective enhances the quality of your child’s decision-making because in order for your child to make the best decision she must be able to understand how it will affect others. Learning that there are consequences for actions that affect your child and others is a good way to promote empathy and responsible decision-making.
Some decisions like which book to read at bedtime or whether she wants carrots or sweet potatoes with dinner are not big choices for you, but allowing her the choice will make her feel more involved and give her more autonomy. Also give her room to make decisions even if she doesn’t make a choice you agree with, as long as the consequences don’t affect her health or safety. For example, if your child wants to take her allowance to school, let her make that choice. If she ends up losing a few dollars or coins at recess, she will likely feel bad about it and learn that it wasn’t a good idea. Letting children learn from their own mistakes is a great teaching opportunity that they will likely remember longer than if you had simply said “no” from the beginning.
For example, inside or quiet voices need to be used in places like libraries and movie theaters, but cheering or loud yelling can be appropriate when watching sports or playing them. This allows your child to understand the differences in situations that can impact her decision-making.