Helping a child with strong emotions and few words

by FS&TS

By Christianna Mullins, MA/CCC-SLP

What happens when a child has difficult expressing his or her thoughts, ideas, wants, and needs with language? Frustration. Children with speech and language disorders may not be able to express their feelings with words, but they will find a way to let those around them know how they are doing. This may look like tantrums in young children. It may look like withdrawal in older children. No matter what the behavior is, the underlying issue is important to identify in order to help the child and those around the child.

What may be reasons that the child is unable to express his or her emotions appropriately?

Articulation difficulty

The child's speech may be so hard to understand that other people cannot clearly comprehend what he or she is saying. When asked "what" 2 or 3 times, the child may shut down or begin crying.

Expressive language

The child may not have the grammatical structure to put together a phrase or sentence to adequately express feelings. A limited vocabulary may not include emotion words yet, such as "sad," "hungry," or "sleepy."

Some children have difficulty communicating verbally.  They may have even more difficulty communicating when they are stressed or emotionally upset.

Receptive Language

The child may not comprehend the question "How are you feeling?"

Pragmatic Language

The child may not have the social abilities to appropriately explain his or her thoughts and feelings in an expected way, and may simply scream when ramped up, rather than calmly explaining the need.

Teaching Emotion Vocabulary

So, what are some solutions to these issues? Being assessed by a speech and language pathologist is essential for a child who is unable to effectively communicate at an expected level for his or her age. Speech-language therapy can help with these communication difficulties.

Some things to try at home, however, include written choices, pictures, and drawing.

Written choices of feeling words, including the basics: "happy, sad, mad, hungry, sleepy, scared," along with parent education of situations in which the child may be feeling these, can be very helpful. The child can then point to the feeling chart when experiencing a strong emotion, to help the adult and child form a plan together.

Pictures of children displaying different emotions (aided with words if developmentally appropriate) can be a comforting choice for a child who needs a peer to "understand" him or her. These picture charts can easily be found in google images. 

A feeling chart with colors listed can help, too. Blue may mean sad, red could mean angry, yellow could equate to happy, etc. Families can create their own color chart. Once again, this can aid the child in identifying feelings in a non-confrontational, safe way. 

Along with the help of a speech-language pathologist, children who do not have very many words, but do have strong feelings may be assisted with these strategies. Along with their parent's modeling feeling words for them, the child will be well on his or her way to effectively communicating emotions.