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Teaching Emotion Recognition During COVID-19

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Studies show that since the start of COVID-19 and everyone wearing masks, children are less likely to recognize emotion.  This can be detrimental to social development.  When children can’t recognize emotion, they struggle with building empathy and learning how to act appropriately during social situations.  Luckily, there are ways to help children effectively learn to recognize emotions even while the world around them is wearing a mask.

The first method is to actively teach children other kinds of body language. Children are smart and will often pick up on body language, such as crossing your arms means you are mad. Toddlers will mimic these behaviors when they see their parents doing them. When mimicking occurs, ask the toddler why they crossed their arms or if they are mad. In addition, if you cross your arms, tell them you are mad. This will help them notice the link between being mad and crossing their arms. However, we aren’t always mad when we cross our arms.  Explain to the toddler how sometimes it happens when people are bored or waiting for something. This can also be done with surprise and raising your eyebrows. Tell the child what emotion you are feeling at that moment. When babies are learning language, you teach by talking to them. Body language works in a similar way. Children learn emotion recognition by talking about it and experiencing it. For example, say, “I’m feeling sadness because…,” then ask what emotion they’re feeling. Eventually, you can start asking what emotion they think you’re experiencing first.  Each time this is done, children will get better at recognizing emotions in ways that aren’t covered by a mask. Be sure to always match the moment to the emotion so that children will be less likely to mix up emotions.  We feel every emotion in our bodies whether we tense up or relax. Use those moments in everyday life to your advantage.  

Watching TV can also be far more educational than people realize. While watching TV, point out characters’ emotions from the facial expressions, body language, or the language they use. This will help children see a variety of emotions from many different people. Start asking children what emotion they think their favorite character is feeling and why. If another character reacts appropriately to the emotions, talk to your children about how they reacted and why it was good.  Explain what children can do when someone is sad, happy, or angry. Kids often want to watch TV, so why not make it a productive time?

Playing games and drawing are other great ways to work on emotion recognition at home. This can be accomplished with a game like charades. Get people from the family to select an emotion and act it out using only body language. This will help children while putting a fun spin on it.  The older the child is, the more subtle everyone should act. Once a child is consistently saying the right emotions, make it a little more challenging by having everyone wear a mask. Charades isn’t the only game that can be played though. Any children’s game that has many colors can be used by assigning an emotion to that color. When the child lands on that color, they have to act out the emotion or explain a time they felt or saw someone feel that emotion. As children get older, add more complex emotions like guilt or shame. 

Last, try wearing a mask with a clear plastic front.  These masks are great for many reasons. It not only helps people read lips but also lets children use more context clues from facial expressions than just the eyes. Children are taught to look at the mouth for a smile or frown, so masks like this give the protection we need while letting children read facial expressions.

While there is a lot to worry about in the world today, teaching children how to recognize emotion should be a priority. Taking a little time out of the day to watch TV with them or play a game can have a huge impact. Learning opportunities are everywhere and don’t always have to take up much time. Explaining an emotion in the moment can make a world of difference. Teaching emotions can help children make friends, navigate the world around them, and set them up for success. To learn more about this and other issues related to children’s emotions, contact Counseling Works for an appointment today!

Written By: Nicole Jordan, LCSW


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