Who is Mad, Sad, Glad, or Scared?

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

Several 4-year olds are playing in a daycare. All of a sudden, Stevie grabs a toy out of Johnny’s hand. Johnny screams, “That’s mine!” Stevie responds by swinging the toy and hitting Johnny in the arm. Johnny immediately bursts into tears as a daycare provider comes swooping into the fray.

The daycare worker quickly figures out what happens and reprimands Stevie and gives the toy back to Johnny. She then pulls Stevie aside and asks him how he thinks Johnny felt when Stevie took the toy away. Stevie looks puzzled and then responds, “Happy?” The worker is surprised Stevie can’t figure out that Johnny would be sad or mad in that situation.

The lack of emotional awareness is quite common among young children. It is even common among older elementary school children. Gradually children begin to become aware of their own emotions which evolve into an awareness of other children’s emotions. The increase in emotional awareness leads children to become more socially competent as they learn to anticipate how children and adults will respond when they display certain emotions. This is part of the long process of developing adult social skills.

However, many children are delayed in developing emotional awareness on their own. The good news is that emotional awareness is a skill that can be taught. Even children who are not delayed can benefit from becoming more aware of their own emotions and how they impact them. There are several techniques to teach children emotional awareness. We like to start off by having children identify the basic emotions of sad, glad, mad, and scared. After introducing the child to the four basic emotions, we use a couple of easy techniques to increase the child’s awareness of emotions.

One technique is to use “teachable moments” which occur when parents and teachers point out particular emotions that a child is displaying as it is happening. This has the advantage of giving the child immediate feedback as the emotion is occurring. However, if the child is having a temper tantrum then he is unlikely to register the feedback.

Another technique is to point out character’s emotions while the child is watching a movie or television show. Most children’s shows have characters that are very clear about which emotions they display making it easier for children to identify the emotion. When first using this technique, it is important for the adult to provide the examples and identify the emotion of the character using the four basic techniques of mad, sad, glad, and scared. Eventually ask the child what emotion is being displayed by the character. As the child gets more experience, he can be asked to predict characters behavior after displaying particular emotions.

The importance of having good emotional awareness in childhood results in better social skills which results in other children wanting to be around the emotionally-aware child. Typically the most popular children in elementary school are those who are the most emotionally aware. So the next time you sit down to see a movie with your child, make sure to ask them about what emotions the characters are displaying.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in December 2011.

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