“How was your day, sweetheart?” We all know the answer we’re going to get when we ask our child this question: “Fine” (or, if we’re lucky, “Good”). Likewise, if we are trying to teach our child empathy, and we ask, “How do you think that made your sister feel?” we will most likely get an obligatory, half-hearted reply: “Bad.”
One reason we get these monosyllabic responses is probably that our kids aren’t emotionally invested in this particular conversation. Even if they were, though there’s another factor that often keeps them from going into the complexity of a particular emotion: they haven’t yet learned to think about their feelings in a sophisticated way that recognizes the varied and rich emotional life within them.
As a result, they don’t use a full spectrum of emotions, and instead paint their emotional pictures primarily in black and white. So we typically don’t hear, “I felt really proud of myself when I hit the winning shot during PE, but I was disappointed with how I did in Science, and I’m irate about what Sarah did at lunch.” And we don’t hear, “I think that made my sister feel belittled, and that I don’t care about her.” Instead, we hear “Fine” and “Bad.”
Ideally, we want our kids to recognize that there’s a colorful rainbow of rich emotions within them, and to pay attention to these different possibilities. Without this awareness of what’s going on in their right brains, they’ll be trapped in black and white, like the old TV reruns. When they have a full emotional palette, they are able to experience the vivid Technicolor that a deep and vibrant emotional life allows.
Making a child aware of the emotional rainbow that exists within them is one of the best ways to help connect the left and right hemispheres of their brain. When they come to understand their own mind and the minds of others, they can then move beyond a black/white assumption that feelings are good or bad, happy or sad. Instead, they can begin to understand the broad spectrum of emotions they experience, and learn to name and express them. Once developed, these skills will last them a lifetime.
When we promote this type of horizontal integration in our kids, we help them take what’s already going on in their right brain and give it words from their left brain. We help them discover tools that will let them paint their emotional life with a full palette using appropriate colors, both vibrant and muted. We teach them that instead of just saying that they feel bad, they can tell us that they feel confused, or embarrassed, or beaten down. Instead of saying that they feel good, they can articulate that they feel moved, or excited, or full of hope. Eventually, they’ll be able to communicate that they even feel multiple, even contradictory, emotions at the same time, such as “I was really disappointed that I didn’t get to go to the sleepover because I was sick, but I had fun watching a movie and hanging out with you and mom.” (You can tell this example isn’t from a teenager!)
When kids become aware of their emotional rainbow—and that’s no easy task, even for adults—they are better able to know themselves and to understand what’s going on inside them, as well as have empathy for other people. Just as important, they’ll also be ready to engage their left brain and verbalize these different experiences and emotions. Keep in mind that “emotions”—the feelings we experience—are really in both sides of the brain. The inner world of raw emotion is felt more directly on the right, and the way we use words to express those initial feelings emerges when we also use our left brain. Using both sides so that neither logic nor raw emotions is in exclusive control – this is the horizontal integration we are trying to help our children develop. We don’t want either side bullying its counterpart into silence.
There are plenty of ways to introduce your child to the depths of emotion within them. For example, when you’re reading together, watch for moments to highlight feelings and emotions. While reading, ask, “What do you think Henry is feeling in this picture?” or, “If you were in this story and they were chasing you, what would you do? How would you feel?”
Discussions like these pave the way for emotional intelligence and empathy. Asking about the feelings of a character in a book is only a small step from inquiring, “How do you think it makes your brother feel when you say that to him?” or “What do you think is going on in that waitress’s life that made her be so rude to us?” (Questions like these might help us, too!)
Aside from empathy, the primary goal here is to help kids identify what’s going on inside of them, and then communicate what they identify. Watch for times when you can help your child recognize what’s happening inside their body as they experience different emotions. For small children, you can make a game of it: “You make a face, and I’ll see if I can guess what you’re feeling. Then I’ll make a face, and you guess.” You can also ask them to act out or demonstrate different emotions: “Show me what your face and body look like when you feel surprised.” Starting as early as age two, children can play games that let them act out emotions, using their faces and bodies to show what they look like when they feel angry, surprised, afraid, excited, and so on.
With older kids, you can be much more direct, using the opportunities that arise naturally to name a variety of emotions: “I can tell that’s really disappointing to you—is that how you feel?” or “You look really peaceful right now.”
Of course at times they may end up with the black-and-white emotions of happy/sad, good/bad. There’s nothing wrong with that, if those are the most accurate terms for what they’re experiencing. The point is to give them an awareness of the emotional rainbow within them, so they can examine what’s going on inside and then articulate those feelings in a way that’s as descriptive and precise as possible. When they can do that, they’ll be using both their left and right brains to paint rich and diverse colors on the canvas of their lives.