This year has been tough on kids. And while you may know that your child is feeling blue because she hasn’t been able to hug grandma or see her teacher in-person for months, your kid just doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell you how she’s feeling—which makes dealing with the emotions even harder. Enter: feelings charts. We tapped psychotherapist Dr. Annette Nunez to find out how these clever charts can help you kids identify and manage their emotions (even the really scary ones).
How a Feelings Chart for Kids Can Help Your Child Right Now
What is a feelings chart?
A feelings chart is simply a chart or wheel that labels different feelings or emotions. There are multiple different variations of this chart, depending on who the intended audience is. For example, the Feelings Wheel created by Dr. Gloria Willcox, has a few basic emotions (like happy and mad) which then expand to other forms of the emotion (say, excited or frustrated) and so on, giving you more than 40 different feelings to choose from (see our printable version of this wheel below). Alternatively, you can have a more simplistic feelings chart geared towards younger children that just labels a few basic emotions (you can also find a printable example of this below).
“All age groups can benefit from a feelings chart,” says Dr. Nunez, adding that they can be helpful for preschoolers all the way up to high schoolers. “You wouldn’t want to use the feelings chart with 40 emotions for a younger child because developmentally, they won’t understand that,” she adds.
How Might A Feelings Chart Help Kids In Particular?
“Feelings charts are wonderful because as adults we know the difference between complex emotions,” explains Dr. Nunez. (In other words, you know that when you’ve been on hold with your insurance provider for 45 minutes that you’re feeling frustrated and annoyed). “Kids, on the other hand, can’t understand those more complex emotions.” And being able to identify emotions is super important—like a major life skill, important. That’s because kids who learn how to identify and express their feelings appropriately are more likely to be empathetic towards others, develop fewer behavioral problems and have a positive self-image and good mental health. On the flip side, the frustration that comes with the inability to communicate emotions can lead out outbursts and meltdowns.
This ability to identify your emotions is especially important now, says Dr. Nunez. “There are so many changes going on—so many children are feeling so many different types of emotion, so it's really important to have children identify how they’re feeling, especially if being at home or being on Zoom calls makes them feel tired or angry or frustrated or bored.” And here’s another reason why a feelings chart could be especially helpful, given the current situation: Learning how to identify feelings can also help with anxiety. In 2010, researchers conducted a review of 19 different research studies with child participants ranging from 2 to 18 years old. What they found was that the better children were at identifying and labelling different emotions, then the fewer anxiety symptoms they exhibited.
Bottom line: Learning how to identify and express feelings in a positive way helps kids to develop the skills they need to manage them effectively.
And How Might Feelings Charts Help Parents?
“Oftentimes adults will mislabel a feeling for a child,” says Dr. Nunez. You might say, ‘Oh my child feels really anxious,’ for example. But then when you ask the child, ‘What does anxious mean?’ you’ll find out that they don’t have a clue! “A feeling or emotions chart is a simple visual that helps the child understand that frustration is a form of anger. And so when introducing an emotions chart to a child, it’s really important to identify [the main emotion] and then you can move on to the more complex emotions such as anxiety, frustration, proud, excited, etc.”
3 tips for how to use a feelings chart at home
- Place the chart somewhere accessible. This can be on the fridge, for example, or in your child’s bedroom. The idea is that it’s somewhere your child can easily see and access it.
- Don’t try to bring out the chart when your child is in the middle of a temper tantrum. If your kid is having a meltdown or is feeling an extreme emotion, it will be too overwhelming to bring out the feelings chart and they won’t be able to process it. Instead, in this moment parents should help kids identify the emotion (“I can see that you’re feeling really mad right now”) and then leave them be, says Dr. Nunez. Then when they’re in a better place, that’s when you can bring the chart out and help them understand what they were feeling. You can sit down with them, for example, and point to the different faces (“Wow, earlier you were really upset. Do you think you felt more like this face or this face?”).
- Don’t forget about the positive emotions. “Oftentimes, we only want to focus on the negative emotions, like when the child is sad or angry, but it’s also important to have the child recognize when they’re happy, as well,” says Dr. Nunez. So, the next time your kid is feeling happy, try asking them, ‘Oh, how do you feel?’ and having them show you on the chart. Per Dr. Nunez, you should focus on positive feelings (like happy, surprised and excited) just as much as you focus on the negative emotions (like sadness and anger). In other words, give equal attention to both positive and negative feelings.