I'm currently just starting to learn this for myself. Growing up in a neglectful and abusive home I never learned to recognize my emotions. Just to surpress everything. This is why I also have a hard time dealing with them. My father was an alcoholic and everybody else was codependent, had to put their own needs and boundries aside.

So in the past weeks I read a lot about the issues I have. And there was a sentence that stood out to me. That we are not responsible for other peolples emotions and how they react to them. I've deeply ingrained my responsibility for others stability and home harmony. Typical for codependency.

Now I want to learn to teach my son (4), that he is responsible for his feelings and can't make me deal with them. But I can't just leave him angry or sad. I think he has to be accompanied and taught.

So, here is an example. He gets a consequence for a behaviour and is angry or frustrated or sad. I don't want to leave him crying. I don't want to engage in his emotional outburst. I don't want to take the consequence away to make him feel better. But what can I do for him in such moments to make it a teachable one? How can I help him recognize, name and deal with his emotions?

Same goes for joyful moments. Make him recognize them, name the positive emotion and maybe live the moment right/ be thankful.

My goal is to not do the emotional work for him. How can I help him/ teach him?

3 Answers 3


TL;DR: Talk to your child often about their feelings and give them a rich emotional vocabulary/lexicon.

Four years of age is a good time to start teaching a child to learn to handle their emotions themselves in socially appropriate ways. As you so poignantly pointed out, many people don't do this. In fact, the majority of adults often don't manage their emotions properly because they are unaware of primary and secondary emotions, and quickly devolve to easily handled emotions (like anger) or making others responsible for making them feel better. That's why anger management courses are ordered so often by judges for relatively minor infractions. The primary focus of anger management courses is to recognize one's feelings, then deal with them appropriately. They give the (adult) students an emotional vocabulary.

The first step to learning how to handle an emotion is to name it.

In order to correctly perceive feelings in yourself and others, you first have to have words for those feelings, a feeling lexicon. Many children are either “happy” or “mad” and miss all the subtle gradations of feelings in-between because they do not have labels and definitions for those emotions. A large and more complex feeling vocabulary allows children to make finer discriminations between feelings; to better communicate with others about their internal affective states; and to engage in discussions about their personal experiences with the world.

To obtain a list of emotions to discuss, google emotional vocabulary; use one aiming higher than you think your child can handle.

Next, identify your own feelings and have a conversation about them with your child. They will pick it up rapidly if you do this regularly.

Some examples of expressing your feelings in front of your child:

-That noise is so loud. I feel irritated.
-Look at all these bubbles! It's exciting! It makes me feel joyful!
-I'm a little bit afraid of the monster in that book. Are you? You're not? You're brave!
-I tripped in front of everyone. I'm so embarrassed.
-Look at that butterfly. I so glad to see it. I feel grateful.
-Is no one paying attention to you? I feel lonely when that happens to me. How do you feel?
-I feel uncomfortable when I see someone yelling like that. I think I feel a little bit scared, too.

If, for example, a child starts expressing themselves with anger, if they have no emotional vocabulary, you can't explore why they use that behavior in a situation. With a feeling lexicon, you can explore it with them.

I don't think you should tell them what emotion you think they were feeling until you've explored several of their own offerings; a child's offerings will initially be generic (mad, sad, happy). You can offer possibilities deeper than these.

Before, when you got angry with (playmate), what were you feeling? (e.g. answer: "mad") But what made you mad? Were you feeling jealous? (yes/no) Were you feeling ignored? (yes/no) (unloved/unimportant/frustrated/etc.?) if you get all "no", you might take an educated guess ("I think that maybe you felt unimportant, because (friend) wasn't playing with you. Is that right?") Then discuss how to handle feeling unimportant.* Talking about it in a place of safety and acceptance, you can help the child work out different strategies to deal with feelings.

This is already a long answer, but the other important strategy in helping your child emotionally is to teach them resilience. It comes naturally to some people, but it is a teachable skill.

Resilient people have

  • close relationships with family and friends
  • a positive view of themselves and [reason-based] confidence in their strengths and abilities
  • the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses
  • good problem-solving and communication skills
  • feelings of being in control
  • know how to seek help and resources
  • see themselves as resilient rather than as a victim
  • cope with stress in healthy ways and avoid harmful coping strategies, such as substance abuse
  • help others
  • find positive meaning in their lives despite difficult or traumatic events

Isn't this what we all want for our children?

* Easier said than done. First, validate the feeling ("It's OK and normal to feel [x]; everyone feels [x] sometimes; I know I do.") Then, depending on the circumstances, suggest possible actions ("Ask [playmate] if they're still interested in playing [y], or does [playmate] want to play something else?" That's one solution.)

My recently turned 3 yr old grandchild was looking at fireflies, and when I asked them how they were feeling, they answered, simply, "I feel serene." I did, too.

A prime scenario used in anger management courses is road rage. Why do we get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic? It can be that we were afraid of being in an accident, or that we felt disrespected, or unimportant, etc. Then how to handle it? Think of the other driver. Maybe they were unaware of your vehicle. Maybe they were distracted. Maybe there is some emergency they need to attend to. Maybe they're just inconsiderate jerks. In all those scenarios, it's not about you, it's about them. When you really incorporate that, the anger is reduced or eliminated.

Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children

The Road to Resilience


First, the best way to teach a child to handle his emotions isn't external consequences (i.e., punishment), but taking the time to teach him how to handle his emotions for their own sake. If he's upset and hitting you, taking away his television or making him lose some other privilege won't teach him to handle his emotions properly: it will teach him to bottle them up.

Ideally, sitting down with him until he is calm and then helping him understand all of the moving parts at that time, without external consequences, will accomplish the most. This isn't to say there aren't consequences - but the consequence is "You hit me, so I'm sad." If he throws cereal all over the floor, the consequence isn't taking away his cereal; it's that he needs to clean it up, and if he won't do that, then it's you not having time to do something else for him while you're cleaning it up, plus being sad that you have to do it without his help.

That's the ideal - making him responsible for his emotions and his actions, rather than applying external consequences, which is taking away that responsibility.

Now, nobody's perfect, and sometimes we reach for a hammer because it's there and we don't have time to figure out how to pry up the board properly. If he is angry or sad because of a consequence, you're certainly right to not take it away and to not leave him alone. At four, he needs to know you still love him and that there's nothing wrong with him, he just made a poor decision. He needs to know that he can make a better one next time. But as you say, he also needs to recognize those feelings.

So - exactly as you say in the question: name them. Help him give those names. If he's upset, tell him "I think you're upset. Are you?" And then use the Socratic method to help him tease out the complexities of that. "I think you're a little mad at me for giving you a consequence, and a little sad that you did the thing that caused you to have the consequence, and a little sad that you won't get the (thing the consequence took away)".

Then, help redirect those feelings to positive results. "While we're sad and thinking about this, can we think of a way next time to avoid this?" or "You're sad because you didn't put down the iPad when I asked you to, and that got you in trouble. Can we find a way to help make it easier for you to put it down? Should you set a timer maybe?" - That sort of thing.

The other thing I like is books that show kids handling those emotions, and naming them. This article has a list of some; these are books like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day (well known, but not perfect), Llama Llama Mad at Mama (really nice for this interaction in particular), The Way I Feel, etc.; but really any book that has a child as a main character who is expressing their very strong feelings will do.

Read those books when he's not mad, and then refer back to them, or even get them out, when he is upset - or happy, or whatever. (This answer has focused on the negative times, but there's no reason you can't do the positive side just the same!)

  • Nice, valuable link. :) Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 15:27

In addition to the other good answers on this page, can I recommend the movie Inside Out? It shows a young girl (Riley) going through a difficult time in her life. Her inner mental world is shown via five little characters, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, each of which personifies that emotion. By giving each of those emotions a persona it can help to talk about them. "What does Anger say about this?" "Joy thinks this is really fun!"

Maybe 4 is a bit young, but give it a go anyway. If he can't follow the story then maybe put it away and try it again in a year or two.

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