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Despite their little size, children are filled with big emotions! Helping them learn the vocabulary to label their feelings is the first step in showing them how to navigate and regulate them. Let’s use the fall holidays as a way to provide context for emotions and give us some fun, easy-to-implement activities for teaching feelings!

For each holiday, we’ll begin by identifying the associated feeling vocabulary and recognizing what it feels like in our own body, and what it looks like in someone else. You can use this specific language with your child when you introduce the lesson. The ability to take someone else’s perspective and recognize their emotional state is the basis of empathy.

Scared and Worried Feelings at Halloween

Halloween night celebrates the spooky, making it simple to start discussions about feeling scared, nervous, or worried. 

First, we notice the feelings inside our own bodies when we’re feeling a bit unsafe. Our heart might beat more quickly, we might breathe more quickly. We might feel shaky or have a fluttery feeling in our stomach. What does this look like on the outside?

People who are frightened or worried often have their eyebrows pushed together and their lips held tightly and turned down. They might look down or have tears in their eyes.

Children have lots of fears. Some are reasonable, but some, at least to adults, seem less so. In general, we want to comfort our child, but then move on without dwelling on the concern. Validating their perspective with “lots of kids worry about that” or “I used to be frightened of that too” can help teach emotions.

Activities to Teach about Scary Feelings

  1. To help a child overcome their fears, you can have them help create a “bravery plan.” This might be choosing a nightlight, watching dogs at the park from the safety of the car, or practicing going to the doctor with a toy doctor’s kit at home.
  2. You might also designate a stuffed animal that has some of the same fears as your child and others that your child doesn’t have or has conquered. This gives your child an opportunity to walk a worried “friend” through situations and assume the role of the brave one.
  3. Monsters and spooky costumes dominate the Halloween scene. Save a copy of a Halloween costume catalog, (removing inappropriate adult costumes). Have your child cut out a variety of the choices, sort, and glue them onto separate pieces of paper. You might have pretty costumes, heroic costumes, spooky costumes, etc. Once they’ve had a chance to see all the options available at the store, they may have an easier time navigating it. “Oh, look! That’s where they have the spooky costumes. I don’t like those either. Let’s look for the princess area.” This also helps them see the scary costumes as a choice.

Appreciative and Grateful Feelings at Thanksgiving

Between the candy excess of Halloween and the gift excess of December holidays, the Thanksgiving tradition’s message of gratitude and appreciation is especially welcome.

How does it feel to be thankful? It feels happy, loving, and connected. It usually looks like smiles and kind eyes.

Activities to Teach about Thankful Feelings

  1. Teaching manners is a clear, easy-to-understand lesson even for very young ones. “Please” and “thank you” are outward signs of appreciation. So is writing thank you notes for birthday and holiday gifts. But the Raising Grateful Children Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill encourages us to take this further. Help children notice what makes us grateful (the gift or action) and then think about why we received it. How does that make us feel and then, in return, how do we express our appreciation?
  2. We can assist our children in understanding less tangible gifts we are thankful for by having family members name something that made them feel good that day. A parent can help give context or reframe the selection to reflect gratitude when children aren’t yet able to. “You were happy you went outside to play today? I was thankful we had a sunny day too.” “You were happy you went to Caroline’s house? It sounds like you appreciate being invited by a friend.”
  3. In addition to “I love you,” start telling your children what you like about them or the actions they did that day. “I like that you helped Daddy make Thanksgiving dinner.” Another you might try is, “I like it when you tell me about your school day in the car.” Take this a step further by writing “just because” thank you notes to a relative you don’t see as often like, “Grandma, I like it when you read me my favorite story three times in a row.”

Compassionate Feelings during the December Holidays

Holidays like Christmas abound in themes of empathy and compassion even if it sometimes feels lost in the wrapping paper and Santa Claus!

Compassion and kindness make us feel connected, helpful, and loving. It usually looks like understanding or kind eyes, a friendly or interesting face, wide eyes, and a relaxed mouth.

Empathy is the ability to take someone else perspective and understand their feelings. We can help our children recognize the feelings of others by pointing them out in books, shows, or in real life. “That boy looks upset. I think his feelings were hurt by those words.” “She looks pleased with herself. I think she’s proud of that painting.” Remember, empathy is recognizing all sorts of emotions!

Activities to Teach about Empathy and Compassion

  1. You can help your child create “wish lists” for each person in the family to practice perspective-taking skills. This might be hard! Dad probably doesn’t want a new Lego set; he might prefer a new bike. Wish lists aren’t shopping lists, so let them go wild! They might use the ideas to decorate a card for each person and demonstrate how well they know the person!
  2. For more specific compassion activities you might support an organization that collects gifts for needy families. It can be a difficult experience for a young child to walk into a store to choose toys for someone else, but worth it in the long run. (Note: try to exclude “fun” purchases for your child or family on that shopping run to keep the focus on helping others.) Not quite there? Buy canned goods for a food drive. Have your child help drop off the donation!
  3. “Secret kindness” acts are another way to promote the giving spirits of the holidays. Brainstorm with your child actions they can take even if they might not be recognized. This might be cleaning up someone else’s mess, helping to open a door or carry items for someone, or paying a compliment. I encourage children to say nice things about someone even if they’re not around, like telling a classmate “Nick shot a great goal today!”

These are sophisticated skills and will grow and evolve over time, but even our youngest can get involved! Giving our children the vocabulary for their feelings, the understanding of someone else’s viewpoint, and our own good examples are how we raise kind, empathic adults.

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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