By Judith L. Pitlick, MA, LPCC
Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development
Four-year-old Michael was misbehaving. The teacher, Mr. Carpenter, was speaking quietly to him, helping with feelings the young boy could not express verbally.
“Michael, if you are missing mommy and feeling sad, we can talk about her and make her a picture,” he said. “You can miss mommy and still feel like a big schoolboy who can manage and be safe.”
Nearby, Alex had been watching this interaction out of the corner of his eye while building with blocks. Unexpectedly he lashed out and knocked down the building of the girl working next to him. While the little girl howled, Alex appeared unconcerned about what he had done and continued building.
The assistant teacher intervened. After hearing the girl’s side of the story, she turned to Alex and asked, “Are you angry at her?” Alex refused to speak, then teared up and put his head down. It was only when Mr. Carpenter approached that he looked up, ready to speak. “I wanted you to help me with my feelings,” he said.
Both in the classroom and at home, young children need help learning the “language of feelings.” Addressing a child’s behavior (what he or she is doing) is different from addressing feelings (what he or she is experiencing on the inside).
As adults, we tend to focus on the doing instead of the feeling. It takes extra time to help a child listen to the feeling inside, and find a constructive way to express it.
We might think we already know how a child feels, but often the child surprises us. Alex seemed angry and unfeeling, but inside he was longing and hurting. His teachers might have thought he acted out because he wanted attention, but they took the time to find out Alex was really asking for some kindness and compassion.
He saw Michael receive comfort and consolation from Mr. C, and Alex wanted the same for himself. He just needed some help to understand what his strong feelings meant – and some guidance on a better way to express them.
- Help the child figure out ways to express feelings safely: Use words, get a hug, take a walk.
- Help the child with difficult feelings while you are calm.
- Praise the child for using words instead of acting out.
- Help the child label specific feelings: happy, sad, jealous, mad, excited, surprised, lonely, hurt, scared…
- Trust that when the child knows the words for feelings, he or she will use them – though it may take practice and require gentle reminders.
- Upset and anger directed at a child creates more upset and anger.
- Remember, the adult is always the model for the child.