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In many, perhaps most, homes, feelings are either not allowed or are not expressed appropriately. When they are very young, children have their feelings in a most natural way. However, in many homes, they are given messages that it is not alright to feel. In order to grow up to be mentally healthy adults, children need to be taught how to identify their emotions and then how to express them in appropriate ways.

When you observe a young child, perhaps birth to three or five years of age, you will see that child very much in touch with her feelings and not at all shy about expressing them. Many times, though, children do not express their feelings properly or, even if they are appropriate, they learn that it is really not okay to "have" their feelings. Gradually, in many homes, certainly in those which are dysfunctional, children are taught in covert and overt, verbalized and non-verbalized ways that they should not have feelings. This is one of the biggest core issues in mental health. Growing up to know what one's feelings are, having them internally and then expressing them in ways which are appropriate and harm neither self nor others is a central piece of growing into a healthy adult. Yet this process is not generally taught in many homes.

As early as two years old, children are ready to learn names of feelings. Language is developing rapidly at this time and items are being given their proper names. Why not include feelings in the list of things for which children learn names?

Children need an emotionally safe atmosphere, one in which the message is reiterated over and over, "You are allowed to feel. Feelings are normal. Feelings are not right or wrong. Feelings are not good or bad. Feelings just 'are'." In order to learn how to identify and properly handle their feelings, children must feel that they are emotionally safe, that they will not be punished for having feelings, that Mom and Dad and other significant people also have feelings.

The central people in the life of a child have much power to influence a child when it comes to emotions. If a child hears an adult say, "Oh, I was so angry when that happened" or "I'm so sad that I lost my job" or "I really felt hurt that you didn't remember my birthday", the child comes to see that the important people in his life have feelings and it is okay to talk about them.

Adults can elicit from a child answers to questions such as, "What were you feeling when the teacher hollered at you?" or "I'm guessing that you might have felt hurt when you didn't get invited to the Halloween party." This type of interchange with a child gives the child that all-important permission to feel. Children do not start out knowing the names of feelings any more than they do the names of animals or toys. They must be taught.

Keep it simple in the beginning. Talk about five basic feelings. The first three rhyme, you can tell your child, making it easier to remember. The most basic feelings are these: mad, sad, glad, afraid, and hurt. Interject the names of these feelings into everyday conversations. Ask your child if she is feeling sad or happy. Ask your daughter if she knows the name of the feeling she is having at the moment. When children are old enough to write, they can write down various feelings they have during the day and at bedtime, a parent might go over the list, asking what situation brought on each feeling.

Feelings can be talked about at any time of the day or evening. Perhaps at dinnertime, each family member might tell of an incident which provoked a feeling and name the feeling. There are many wonderful books on feelings in all the major bookstores as well as online, available to today's parents to aid them in this important task of teaching kids about emotions. Also there are posters with 16 or 20 faces on them, each face with a different expression and underneath the face the feeling is identified.

When a child tells you he is feeling a certain way, do not under any circumstances tell the child, "you ought not to feel that way." Feelings must be allowed and only the person knows what she or he is feeling. Telling another person that she should not or does not feel a certain way is not only certain to provoke anger and resentment, but it is demeaning and works counter to your task of allowing children to feel.

Once the identification of basic feelings is beginning to be understood by the young child, it is time to move on to learning how to express those feelings in an appropriate manner. Parents need to tell a child that hurting self or others is never allowed as a way to express their feelings. Tell your children that the most important and helpful way to express their feelings is to state them aloud. Sometimes saying out loud what you are feeling is all that is needed. When children express a feeling to you, paraphrase back to them what you hear so that they will feel both heard and understood. For example, when a child says he is angry at Tommy, you might respond, "Tommy really made you mad."

If the child seems to need an outlet other than speaking his feelings, parents need to provide creative ways to allow the child to express what he is feeling. For example, pounding a pillow, going outside and hollering and/or running, or writing the name of the person with whom you are angry on the soles of your shoes and then going out for a nice, pounding walk are all good ways for young children to vent their anger. Save old newspapers for kids to rip with both hands when they are angry. Save old egg cartons; they make great tools for jumping on and venting anger.

Other ways of venting feelings include the many art media. Suggest to your child that he take clay, paint, crayons, and sculpt or draw his feelings. Writing is a time-honored way to express feelings. Sending a child to her room with instructions to write about how upset she is and to return to read it to you when she is no longer upset is an invaluable suggestion for helping a child get out any kind of feeling. Kids can sing about their feelings; they can dance; they can run; they can strike a pose that expresses their feelings and have you guess what it is that they are feeling. Also, allow your child to cry when she is angry or sad or upset.
Never tell your child to stop crying; weeping is a built-in bodily means of expressing feelings. Your child wouldn't be crying if she didn't need to cry.

Example your children in expressing verbally your feelings, then tell them what you did or are planning on doing to let those feelings get out. Teach your children that they do not have to stuff down their feelings inside them. Unexpressed feelings are one of the major reasons
for many bodily illnesses and symptoms as well as a significant reason for many people being in psychotherapy.

By teaching your child to identify what he is feeling and then showing and allowing him to appropriately express those emotions, you will be giving him a major tool that will have lifelong benefits for his mental health. He will also lead a much fuller life. He will be a person who knows what he is feeling...and what to do with those feelings. This is such a worthwhile investment to make in your child's life. The importance of identifying and appropriately expressing feelings cannot be overstated. Invest time and energy in this area of your child's life; you...and he...will reap great rewards!