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3 Ways to Play out Feelings with Your Child

I think we have clearly established that play is the best medium to help children better manage their inner world. Their dreams and aspirations. Their anxieties and fears. Their desires and nightmares. Which is also why play is the best medium to talk to your child about their feelings.

We know that having an extensive emotional vocabulary can help us:

  • Improve our emotional intelligence
  • Foster healthier relationships with ourselves and those around us
  • Increase our empathetic responses to others
  • Among so many other benefits

But, how do we teach our children about something as complex as feelings? How do we establish this emotional vocabulary at an early age? What’s the best way to open a healthy conversation about how to identify, manage and express our feelings in a healthy way?

Here are my three favorite ways to play out feelings with your child.

Use existing metaphors

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to read yet another therapist’s blog raving about Pixar’s 2015 animated movie Inside Out. If you haven’t watched it (in which case I will highly suggest you watch it immediately after you finish reading this blog post), Inside Out tells the story of how “emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life.”

The animated movie covers basic emotions like joy, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. And, through the movie, we learn how each of these emotions has a purpose and mission in our lives. Since then, many games have come out with the characters, but the ones I turn to repeatedly are the miniatures.

I turn to these figurines constantly and encourage the children I work with to choose the one that best fits the playing scenario we are engaging in. The reason I use these is that these characters are already relatable to children. They know them and can easily choose them to represent their own emotions. Some questions you might ask include:

  • Which character do you think best fits in this situation?
  • What emotion best represents them?
  • How does this emotion feel in your body?
  • What are some things it allows you to do? What are some things it prevents you from doing?

And see where this conversation takes you.

Speak their language

Another thing I love to do is to use existing board games children already enjoy, and give them a twist. I recently came across this game of “Emoji UNO” and immediately started thinking of all the wonderful possibilities it might give us to open healthy conversations with children (pre-teens and teens, as well) about their emotions.

Some ways I suggest using this game include:

  • If you play a +2, the other person needs to share a situation that makes them feel what the emoji represents.
  • If you need to draw more cards, you should share a way to deal with the last emoji played.
  • If someone skips you, you should share a time when you’ve felt that way.

The nice thing about this is that you can make the rules as you go. Creativity and imagination are key, so involve your child into co-creating these set of rules with you. And it’s okay if you include some wacky rules along the way, remember it’s important to have fun!

What do feelings look like?

Another great resource is giving children the opportunity to show us how they experience feelings. This is something they can do with play-doh, white paper and markers, and/or finger paint.  Sometimes, it helps to show them what these emotions look like for YOU, first.

Whenever your child is telling you about a situation at school or is playing out a scenario that is highly emotional, you might make a quick pause and show them what that particular emotion they’re playing out or talking about looks like for you. Think about texture, colors, size or any other important detail. Later, ask your child to show you what it looks like for them.

This brief yet powerful strategy, can really help us empathize with children so much better. And when they put their feelings on the outside, this can help them feel more at ease and open the space to talk about emotions more comfortably with you.

Remember the golden rules when talking to your child about their feelings:

  • Don’t judge or shame their feelings
  • Ask, ask, and ask some more
  • Don’t be afraid to self-disclose a similar situation that might’ve happened to you
  • Listen to what they’re saying and honor their experiences
  • Open the conversation to think about strategies to better deal with these emotions TOGETHER.

Do you have any strategies that you play out with your child? I’d love to read them in the comments below!

3 Ways to Play out Feelings with Your Child

Mariana Plata

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APA Reference
, . (2019). 3 Ways to Play out Feelings with Your Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Jan 2019
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