How To Help Your Special Needs Child Label Their Emotions

Sunday, January 12, 2020

When my 5 year old was a toddler, she had difficulty with expressing herself. Honestly, she still does, but it was different back then. She literally could not says the words. Now, however, her struggle is with getting her to change those thoughts & emotions into words.

She struggles with labeling them.

Three curly-haired toddlers sitting together. The girl on the left has a light teal dress on. The boy in the middle is in an all navy blue suit. The girl on the right is in a light blue dress.

Now, I know people don't love the word "label" when it comes to humans. I, personally, don't share that view (that will be a different post), so I'm going to speak freely with it now. Anyway... I digress..

I'm sure you've noticed with your special needs child (whether Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, Unspecified Developmental Delay, etc.), it can be really hard for them to label their emotions. Especially when they are really upset/overwhelmed/angry. It's tough for these little people, and even many adults I know, to focus in on a word when they have so many feelings. So many emotions.

Our goal should be to help our special needs children find those labels. Help them put words (or even use sign language when they don't have their words yet) to their emotions. This is emotional intelligence, and is so crucial to teach as soon as you possibly can, because your emotional intelligence level can seriously make or break relationships. Through your entire existence!

As always, I will mention that I am not perfect about this. I have times when I feel kind of "done" with everything, and I don't want to focus in my own feelings and thoughts, to help someone else. But, when it comes to your children, you have to. It's your job. You're the parent.

Just today, I had a situation with my 5 year old where she got very upset. So overworked! She, for some reason, thought that I had disappeared (while I was inside my closet) and started scream-crying (an almost fake cry, that really just gives her the opportunity to be very, very loud). 
Two curly-haired blonde toddler girls hugging and smiling.
I immediately came out of my closet to try and figure out what she was screaming about and, hopefully, comfort her. Honestly, though, I was pretty fed up with the behaviors this morning and I didn't want to focus in on her. But I did. I swallowed my pride/my bad feelings/my anxiety and I focused in on her. So, I squatted down to her level.. and this is how our conversation went.

Me: Can you take a deep breath for a moment, please? So we can talk?
5: *breathes but is still crying*
Me: So, can you please use words, instead of your loud sounds?
5: *stares at me still crying*
Me: Would you like me to help find the right words to say?
5: *nods*
Me: Maybe.. you got scared?
5: Yeah! I was scared you were gone!! I didn't know you were still here and I didn't want you to be gone!
Me: I bet that was really scary. I'm sorry you got so scared and upset. Would you like a hug?
5: Yessssssssss! *still crying*

Now, I'm not saying all encounters will go this easily, or that any encounters will, but this is what worked today. This is, typically, the things I try each time. A lot of the time, it does work. With both of my kids, my niece, my nephew, and a lot of other special needs kids I've done this with.
  1. Focus on breathing.
  2. Can they use words?
  3. Would they like help with finding the words?
  4. Validate their feelings.
As I said before, our goal should always be to help them label their emotions. When they can label them, we have the ability to tell them "Hey, I understand why you felt that way. I'm so sorry you did.".

A toddler girl in a pink dress cuddling up with a toddler boy, who's laying on her lap, wearing blue Mickey Mouse pajamas.

How incredible would it be if we all were able to do this with one another? How much of a better world would we, as adults, exist in??

Let's try and do this for our children. We'll all be better for it.


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