Expressing feelings verbally is an important step in a child’s development. If your child is unable to explain that he is frustrated, hungry, angry, or lonely, he is far more likely to tantrum, scream, or misbehave instead. That’s because your son or daughter wants to get through to you. He or she wants to connect, even if only to get basic needs met. I promise that as your child begins to put words to feelings, you will notice a decrease in outbursts and inappropriate behaviors.
Here are some ways that you can begin to teach your child to verbalize her feelings:
1. Demonstrate feelings through pretend play. Typical children learn social skills, communication, and abstract thinking through their imaginary play. The special needs child will probably need guidance, because this kind of play doesn’t come naturally. As the parent, you will need to sit down and initiate imaginary play to construct for your child the same learning experiences that come naturally to other children.
Dolls or stuffed animals can make excellent tools for teaching feelings. Have one doll sit by herself, and give her a voice. “I’m sad. I don’t have anybody to play with.” Make a sad face as you express the doll’s imaginary feelings. Make the doll cry out loud. “I feel sad today!” Encourage your child to respond to the doll. Suggest a response, like, “Oh, maybe she needs a hug. Would that make her feel better?”
You could also engage two dolls or stuffed animals in a dispute. “Hey! Give me back my ball!” Have one doll respond, “That makes me mad when you take my ball. I feel angry!” Make a mad face as you express the doll’s feelings. Watch for even small responses from your child. Even a little curiosity, or pausing to watch, is a good sign that your child is taking in some of the drama.
2. Give your child a voice when he whines or screams. Verbalize his feelings for him. Even today, I find myself doing this with my son Kyle. He’ll clench his fists and teeth, grunting in anger, and I’ll give him the words to describe what he feels. “Kyle, say, ‘That makes me really MAD!” and he has learned to immediately repeat my words: “That makes me MAD!” I notice a look of relief washes over his face once he has verbalized his anger. He is now able to use words to express his emotions, without help, more than half the time. But if the words aren’t coming, even today I will supply them.
If your child is whining and reaching for a cup, suggest what he should say. “Michael, say, ‘I’m thirsty.’” You can further encourage him to verbalize his feelings by ignoring, or pretending to be confused by grunts and whines. “What? I don’t understand that. Are you hungry? Say, ‘I’m hungry.’” Your child will not be motivated to use words if you are responding to whines as though they were words.
3. Teach your child to decipher facial expressions. As you select stories for your child, find ones where an illustrated character is crying or angry. Point to the face. “Oh, dear! How does Little Bear feel? He looks sad. See? He’s crying.”
For an A+ effort, you could spend some time cutting out faces from magazines. Look for expressions, and group them together. Make a “sad” page, and a “happy” page, etc. Have your child help you sort and arrange the faces into a collage.
Play a game with your child, having him guess the “label” for certain facial expressions. I have done this on many occasions with Kyle. Since children on the autism spectrum have difficulty understanding emotions, they need to learn to “read” expressions through rote or memorization. In other words, you are going to teach emotions like you would with flashcard pictures. Sad face = Sad. Happy face = Happy.
For example, make a sad face, saying, “I’m sad.” Then make an angry face, saying, “Now I’m mad!” Then laugh, saying, “That’s funny!” Then, make the face without the label, and encourage your child to say what it is. Kyle loved this game. He laughed and laughed as I changed the look on my face. I felt a little silly at times, but it taught Kyle to recognize facial expressions and give them a name.
Not long ago, I was crying about some bad news, and Kyle came into the room, watching me curiously. “Mommy, are you sad?” he asked me, softly. Then he leaned down and kissed my face.
You have to understand the nature of autism to know what an incredible, fantastic breakthrough that was. My son had (a) recognized my emotion correctly, and (b) responded appropriately. Whether he felt the tenderness associated with his actions, I can’t be sure. But he made a loving connection with me, on his own. I can’t even remember what had me crying that day, but I will never forget that surprising and delightful moment with my son.