My talk with 4-year-olds on emotions

Going back to my second blog, “Emotional Vocabulary..,” I wanted to update my readers on the “talk” I gave to a group of 4-year-old children and their teachers. I think it is important to mention more about the “process” of interacting with them in effective, positive ways, compared to the content (at least in this particular blog entry). When I met all twelve (yes 12!) 4-year olds, I asked them to sit down in a circle. For parents and clinicians alike, this particular age group poses difficulties in the attention and hyperactivity department. Have you ever witnessed how much food a 4-year-old throughout the day consumes? It is a true testament to how much energy they are expelling. Young children are in constant “move mode” and when they are asked to sit and be still, this is akin to asking Mexican jumping beans to stay still and not fall off the counter. It just won’t happen.

So, if I have to work with young children with lots of energy, it was important that I engage them in different activities every five minutes (give or take a minute). They need constant reinforcement, whether that is a small present (e.g., plastic animals, stickers) or verbal praise. Young children are soooooo responsive to this reinforcement when learning new skills. They also love to be the “teacher” when given the opportunity. I had one child stand up and act out all different emotions (joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger) and had the other children guess which emotions she was expressing (on a more complicated level, this enables the children to really start practicing emotion recognition, a more developmentally advanced skill). The other children were rewarded for raising their hands AND giving the correct answer. One boy ended up with 3 small plastic animals as a reward after answering all the questions correctly AND raising his hand. Other children were asking why they did not have a small toy, and I responded by saying it was because he demonstrated the proper behavior AND answers. In a small microenvironment, they were learning that positive behaviors could have a positive result. On a side note, this is where parents sometimes can go awry and feel that ALL kids need a toy no matter what (usually this is because they feel bad if the children feel bad). In small doses, not rewarding behavior that does not warrant a reward can have long-term benefits in terms of tolerating distress, increasing motivation, and reducing overall levels of anxiety. All the kids in the class were so responsive and at the end, I told them all that if they all practiced diaphragmatic breathing and problem-solving techniques with me, they could each earn a small toy. Each child was individually singled out for their positive engaged behavior and given verbal praise, followed by a toy (however, this was CONTINGENT upon the prior behaviors).

You may ask, how is this all relevant to me, as a parent? It definitely is! When teaching your child a new skill (e.g., making their bed, or placing clothes in the laundry, not being mean to their sibling, etc.), it is important you first teach the skills step by step, then model the behavior for them (use your acting skills, and then have them practice with you without laughing), then have them re-teach you the skill, all the while loading on the positive, genuine verbal reinforcement. I would recommend that if they can demonstrate this behavior for a longer time frame (e.g., 2-3 days or a week), you consider a small tangible reward. Kids need stimulation and to be engaged. You will get more positive behaviors from them with these skills. If you try it this week, give me a shout and let me know how it goes!



I am a clinical psychologist with approximately 15 years of experience assessing and treating anxiety and depressive disorders in young children, adolescents, young adults, adults and geriatric populations. I completed a 6-year predoctoral training award at the National Institute of Mental Health, and postdoctoral training at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living/Hartford Hospital. From my clinical and research experiences, I have come to see the struggles of many families deciding when to pursue professional help and feeling very lost in the process. I will address several mental health issues that will help educate and empower my readers to make better mental health decisions for themselves. Welcome to my blog! Johanna Kaplan, Ph.D. Disclaimer-This blog is not and cannot be used in replace of formal therapy. This blog is used to inform and educate and is not a form of informal or formal advice.

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