As children grow and develop, they experience a range of emotions and moods that can be hard to get to grips with. As parents, caregivers, and educators, it’s our duty to provide children with the tools and resources necessary to help them navigate their emotional landscape and develop a set of healthy coping mechanisms to have at their disposal.
Mood vs. Affect: What’s the Difference?
Before diving into mood-understanding strategies, it’s important to clarify the difference between mood and affect. While these terms are often used interchangeably, from a scientific and psychological perspective, their individual meanings are distinct.
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Dictionary of Psychology, a mood is defined as ‘any short-lived emotional state, usually of low intensity (e.g., a cheerful mood, an irritable mood). It’s also described as a disposition towards a particular emotional response that may persist from hours to weeks, of which the cause is not necessarily apparent.
Affect, on the other hand, is defined as ‘any experience of feeling or emotion, ranging from suffering to elation, from the simplest to the most complex sensations of feeling, and from the most normal to the most pathological emotional reactions.’
In simple terms, mood is a general emotional state in and of itself, while affect refers to the observable expression of emotion, such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
The first step in helping kids understand their moods is to encourage oodles of self-awareness; to do this, we need to help children recognize and identify specific emotions as they arise. A great way to achieve this is to create a ‘feelings chart’ that covers a range of emotions (happy, excited, sad, frustrated, and so on). As soon as a child begins to experience an identifiable emotion, encourage them to express it using the chart. This is fantastic for promoting self-awareness and maturity in expressing emotions in a healthy way.
Teach Coping Mechanisms
Once a child is able to accurately recognize their emotions, we need to teach them what on earth to do with them! Research tells us that children who are taught healthy coping mechanisms are less likely to be hampered by mental health issues in adulthood, so taking the time to teach and model them is worth its weight in gold.
Healthy coping mechanisms to teach them can include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, or intentionally engaging in a physical activity to help release their emotions in a healthy way. It’s also vital to address their relationship with food and encourage healthy eating habits to support physical and mental wellbeing.
Encouraging children to find activities that bring them joy can also be a helpful coping mechanism, highlighting the control we do have in steering our emotional ship, so to speak.
Model Healthy Emotional Expression
As inconvenient as this might sometimes be, it’s undeniable that children do learn from the behavioral examples being modeled to them, so we need to make our own emotional expression as healthy as possible. This means expressing emotions in a constructive and appropriate way, such as talking through feelings with a trusted confidant, instead of bottling them up or lashing out at others. When children see adults consistently expressing their emotions in a healthy way, they will be more inclined to adopt the same approach for themselves.
Use Positive Reinforcement
When a child successfully identifies and manages their emotions, providing positive reinforcement can work magic for turning it into a lifelong habit. According to research, positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment in changing behavior in children from an intrinsic standpoint (in other words, severe enough punishment might stop them from behaving a certain way, but only out of fear instead of any meaningful change occurring).
Whether it be verbal praise, a small reward, or simply acknowledging the child’s efforts, positive reinforcement helps to reinforce healthy emotional expression, a cornerstone to a happy life and fulfilling relationships.
Making Emotional Exploration Fun
Create a Mood Jar
A mood jar is a fun, interactive way to help children identify and manage their emotions. To create a mood jar, simply fill a jar with colored beads or pom-poms, and assign each color to a different emotion (e.g., red for angry, blue for sad, green for happy, etc.). When a child notices a particular emotion and corresponding feeling, they can add a bead or pom-pom to the jar. This allows them to visually track their emotions and can also serve as a reminder to practice healthy coping mechanisms when needed.
Play Emotion Charades
Who doesn’t love charades? To play Emotion Charades, simply write different emotions on slips of paper and place them in a hat or bowl. Take turns drawing a slip of paper and acting out the emotion without using words, as the other players guess the emotion being performed. This game can really help to take the heaviness out of some of the trickier emotions, making it easier for kids to stay in an expressive space.
Create an Emotion Collage
An emotion collage is a wonderfully creative way for children to explore and express their emotions. Using magazines, newspapers, and other fun materials, help the children to create a collage that represents their current mood or a particular emotion they are feeling. Encouraging children to express their emotions in a non-verbal way can also work wonders for deepening their capacity for self-reflection and introspection.
Seek Professional Help
In some cases, a child’s mood and emotional patterns may be indicative of a mental health issue requiring attention. Given that approximately 1 in 5 children in the United States reportedly experience a mental health disorder each year, it’s not something we can afford to take a lackadaisical approach to.
If a child is consistently grappling with difficult emotions and struggling to pick up coping mechanisms, it’s important to seek professional help. A mental health professional can work with the child and their family to develop a plan for healthy mood management, and investigate whether there are any other mental health conditions muddying the waters. It’s naturally confronting to consider; nevertheless, the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.
No two children are the same, and some will no doubt require different strategies for managing their emotions. As parents, caregivers, and educators, it’s our responsibility to provide children with the tools and resources they uniquely need to develop healthy emotional habits that they can rely on for life.