3 Fun Exercises That Help Kids Tap Into Their Emotions

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Our lives would be perfect if we were happy all of the time—or would they be? I grew up in a household where I learned very quickly to put on a brave face. In fact, I once had a high school teacher tell me I had the emotions of a brick wall. I knew that wasn't true. I was actually very aware of how sensitive I was, and the "brick wall" was my defense mechanism. It wasn't until my late 20s that I realized emotions are allowed and, in fact, completely necessary.

Now that I have young children, I find myself thinking more and more about how to "deal" with emotions—my own as much as theirs. One of the greatest gifts our children give us is to throw us off our game, questioning everything and forcing us to dig a little deeper.

When I saw Disney/Pixar's Inside Out, I immediately fell in love. The movie takes a look at the emotional roller coaster inside an 11-year-old girl's head. What a great way to introduce the importance of all of our emotions to children! The producers kept it fun and focused primarily on Joy and Sadness. I'm certainly more inclined to have Joy at the helm as much as possible, and I'm guessing many of you are, too. Yet, as this movie makes so abundantly clear, one cannot exist without the other.

While watching Inside Out together is a great starting point, I also recommend three more great tools to help kids read, understand, and respond to emotions. These skills continuously develop over a lifetime, and these are great ways to introduce the concept at a young age.

1. Mirror Faces

This one is great for small children. Simply sit or stand in front of a mirror. Then, call out emotions and make a face that corresponds with that emotion. You can even pair the emotions with animals and sounds to dial up the play. For example, "I'm an angry tiger, grrr!" or "I'm a happy monkey, ooo-ooo-ahh-ahh."

At the youngest age, this exercise will be more about the parent leading, but trust that it's being internalized. Soon enough your little one will join in.

2. I Feel [Happy] When...

My family tends to play this game in the car. One person starts by saying, "I feel happy when (insert scenario here)." Then, everyone takes turns sharing what makes them happy. Once everyone gets a turn, someone changes the emotion. For example, "I feel sad when...," or "I feel cranky when...," or "I feel angry when..." You get the idea.

Each time you start in on a new emotion, try to let everyone share at least once before changing the emotion again. The first few times you may need to initiate the emotion change, but before you know it the kids will take over. Both my 3- and 6-year-old participate and even initiate this game. As a parent, it's amazing the insight you will gain into your child's thoughts and feelings.

In order for this exercise to be successful, there are a few things to keep in mind: Participate, listen, and never judge. Even when you hear, "I feel sad when Mommy yells at us in the morning" (yes, I heard this one), do not respond with, "Well, I asked you to put your shoes on six times!!!" Just listen. When it's your turn, you might say, "I feel sad when Mommy yells." It's really important to establish a safe space for emotions to be shared, released, and never judged.

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3. Who's in There?

This is a popular one in the evenings at our house. It plays off the child's incredible ability to imagine. In this exercise, children actually visualize what each of their emotions looks like. You start by asking "Who's in there today?" You can build upon your child's answer from there. Ask questions like, "What are they wearing today?" or "Are they hungry?"

It's interesting to see how these emotion characters take on a storyline after a while. You may find yourselves getting into some pretty elaborate conversations! Additionally, if your child is into art, you can have them draw what their emotions look like. They may look like little characters or simply be a swirl of color. There is no right or wrong.

Just the other day, my 6-year-old and I were working on riding her bike without training wheels. Afterward, she told me, without being prompted, "Fear was getting tired at the end and I could barely hear him." It was heartwarming to hear her identify and communicate that emotion to me.

The idea of visualizing emotions might be a bit abstract in the beginning. When you're first introducing this concept to your child, you might need to model it for them. Find a time when you're just hanging out and ask the question, "Have you ever wondered what happy looks like?" Then describe your picture of happy and ask them what they think. Remember, their emotional characters are theirs, not yours. Feel free to guide, but refrain from adding your own ideas to their vision.

The above activities can help all of us to acknowledge, release, and create a conversation with and around our feelings. I hope you enjoy exploring these ideas with your own family. I have learned as much as my kids have from these tools and, most importantly, doing them together has strengthened our connection.

If you are eager to learn more about this topic, I recommend the following books:

  • Visiting Feelings, by Laura Rubinstein: a wonderful picture book exploring emotional awareness.
  • Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert: a great book for adults that shares a very creative perspective on feelings and how to talk to them.

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