Behavior & Environment

Three Ways to Teach Self-Awareness to Kids

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Guiding children to recognize, articulate, and manage their emotions is a nuanced skill that forms the bedrock of emotional intelligence. Here are three key areas to prioritize.

1. Give them context for their feelings.
When children are small, we can sportscast to connect what is happening in the moment with how they’re feeling. For example, “It seems like you’re angry that Sam took your truck away from you before you were finished playing with it.” This simple narration helps them identify their feelings and the situation that led to those feelings. As kids get older and they get better at identifying their own emotions and understanding the context around them, you can ask questions to encourage them to deepen their understanding. For example, “You’ve said you often feel anxious when meeting new friends. There are a lot of new people at this picnic. Could that be part of why you’re feeling out of sorts and short-tempered?”

2. Encourage them to identify how their feelings show up in their body.
Our brains and bodies take in so much more information than our conscious brain can process. A recent article in Forbes says, “The unconscious processing abilities of the human brain are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Compare that to the estimate for conscious processing: about 40 pieces per second.” Much of that “extra” information presents through our bodies. Before our minds register an emotion, it often shows up as a tightness in the chest, a gurgling of the stomach, a tingling of the limbs, or countless other ways. Helping a child identify how a feeling shows up in their body helps them tap into valuable unconscious information and take appropriate action even before they fully process the situation. Adults call this gut instinct and it’s why we decide to take the stairs rather than get into the elevator with someone for no “logical” reason or why we don’t fully trust someone others call a ”great person”.

3. Rate feelings to understand intensity.
Being sad at a 1 or 2 (on a scale of 10) isn’t the same as being sad at an 8 or 9. By asking kids to rate their feelings for you, you help them develop an understanding of their personal emotional thresholds. For example, being sad at a 2 may mean a tween needs some extra time with a best friend, however, being sad at an 8 or 9, especially if it lasts a week or two, may mean a tween needs to reach out to an adult for more structured help. When kids learn their emotional thresholds, they can be proactive around how to keep themselves safe, happy, and healthy.

Developing self-awareness isn’t a skill that can be learned overnight; it’s a gradual process built upon day by day. Yet, the rewards for both the child and those around them in various relationships make the investment of time and effort truly worthwhile.