Parenting & Other Life Stories

Emotion as Expressive Characters

 Parents have you ever seen the little man with oversized ears sitting on top of your child’s head, or perched inside of your child’s ear? Maybe you have seen a large red grumpy monster with 5 eyes and 5 mouths walking like a shadow behind your child, or a blue laughing man with flowers and strawberries for hair jumping around your child’s feet. Then again, maybe you are just wondering what I am talking about. I am talking about emotions, particularly children’s emotions.

So, what are emotions? On the surface basic emotions are sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. From there it is common knowledge that emotions include a behavioural component, a physiological component, and a subjective feeling. But what is sadness? What is happiness? These are hard questions because the answers are abstract and complicated. Imagine trying to answer these questions as a child.

Children’s moods (emotional state), emotions, and personalities are widely varied. Adding a bit of change can cause small upheavals for children; adding a lot of change can really throw them off. For us, we were in the midst of a large amount of changes when I found myself desperate for help with my 4 year old. In the span of 1 month his grandma died, and we moved a long distance from everything he had known for the last 4 years. Suddenly my happy-go-lucky son was completely different. I felt as if my child had been replaced by a stranger. He was angry, and he would go into terrible fits of yelling, hitting, screaming, and biting. My heart broke when he yelled, “I hate you.” I didn’t even know that he knew the “h” word.

Nothing seemed to help from the endless list of things I tried: 1-2-3 discipline (always a show stopper before), taking toys/privileges away, talking to him, asking him questions, spending extra time with him, and etcetera. Despite my best efforts he seemed to be getting worse. So, as a parent I reached out for help. The bulk of my son’s anger and aggression was aimed at me, and I felt it was because of the closeness in our relationship. He felt safe and comfortable with me, free to express even his worst self. This point was later confirmed by child psychologist Tudor Caliman M.A., C.C.C.

From my adult perch I was trying hard to talk to my son about the way he was feeling, about his actions, and his emotions. I had not given any thought to my adult communication aimed at a 4 year old. I never considered that perhaps he didn’t have the understanding and the means to participate in these conversations in a manner that was helpful to him. Caliman explained that at this age it was beneficial to externalise emotions, make them a tangible object outside of the child. Asking the child to describe the emotion using shapes and colours brings the emotion into a realm where the child can begin to understand it and give voice to it. Externalising also takes blame and shame off the child, so instead of asking “why are you acting like this, are you angry?” ask “what colour are you feeling, and what shape?” This simple change in tactic takes on a different tone, a tone that isn’t accusatory. There is nothing wrong with emotions, or expressing them, and children need to learn it is healthy to have emotions, and that there are healthy ways to express them.

Caliman recommended activities that were age appropriate in helping the child to externalise emotions, like asking the child to draw what anger looks like. I would add that because emotions change, what is created today to represent sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust may not be the same as what is created tomorrow. Overall, this advice made a huge difference for us. My son and I created a listening man (I have heard others use listening ears), we still use it. It has made some situations take on a lighter tone, and it has encouraged my son to take an active role in his moods and emotions. For example, he pretends to wake up his listening man and it actually helps to get his listening skills working. Another example from early on when we were having a difficult time involved my son in the throes of one of his fits, I managed to look into his mouth and ask where his laughing man was, then I pretended to give a start as I announced that he was way down inside the mouth. It actually turned the whole situation around, it got a bit silly for a few minutes with laughing and joking about the location of his happy monster and laughing man. It ended there, and after we were done with the silly part he gave me a hug and apologized! The power of it goes on. I have seen him throw his angry monster in the garbage or into the snow, and return with a new mood/emotion. Very powerful learning tools.

Another example of this externalization of emotions was recently brought to the forefront by Disney’s Pixar. The movie Inside Out that was released in 2015 externalises the basic emotions beautifully in animated characters, and it demonstrates the power of emotions. One way it demonstrates this power is by showing how emotions motivate and encourage behaviour necessary for survival, and how confusing it can be for a child.

The movie illustrates Sadness, Joy, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. As external characters they embody some common ideas about emotions. For example Anger is a red, intense, little monster that can become very powerful; Joy glows, and that radiance draws everyone towards her; Disgust embodies standoffishness; Fear is constantly on edge; Sadness is a blue, little, meek thing that is blamed, but proves to have a wonderful and powerful place in the grand scheme of things.

Clearly this idea of expressive character of emotion can be fun, and creative, as well as therapeutic. For us, it allowed my son to learn about his emotions in a safe and healthy way, and it allowed me to learn and understand about his emotions in a safe and healthy way. It also allowed us to bond together with emotions in a way that will hopefully move us forward further into his childhood and teen years with an open channel of emotional communication. If I could paint an image to end this article it would involve those expressive emotion character standing in a line and clapping. 

By Shari Marshall – 2016