Five Steps for Teaching Anxious Kids to Recognize and Name Their Feelings

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Just about everyone is feeling more stressed and anxious as we all deal with the disruptions and uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus crisis. Anxiety is a normal reaction during these times, and we all need to find healthy ways to cope with our anxious feelings. For kids with ADHD, signs of anxiety can easily be missed because they often mimic ADHD symptoms.

Fortunately, there are many things parents can do to help kids cope with anxiety, starting with helping kids recognize and name their feelings. It might seem like recognizing and labeling our feelings are things that are fairly simple to do, but it actually requires some fairly sophisticated skills that develop over time during childhood and adolescence.

Every child develops at their own pace, and kids with ADHD may develop these skills more slowly than kids without ADHD. When these skills are lagging, kids express their feelings and emotions through behaviors rather than words. Feelings manifest as behavior outbursts, argumentativeness, frequent crying, withdrawing from family and friends, poor sleep, changes in eating habits, and/or physical complaints like stomachaches or headaches. When kids are able to label their feelings and express them in healthier ways, they feel less anxious, their behavior improves as well.

Here are five strategies for teaching your child the skills they need to start recognizing and naming their feelings today.

  1. Post a feelings chart. Feelings charts are used by teachers, counselors, and therapists to help kids label their emotions. They can be extremely useful for parents as well. The best charts contain about 20-25 emotions and use simple descriptive images. There are thousands of printable feelings charts available online, and most high-quality charts can be downloaded for a small fee (like this How Do You Feel emoji chart that can be downloaded for $3.00). Post the chart on the wall where you and your child can see it throughout the day.
  2. Practice labeling feelings. Your child will learn to name their feelings through practice and repetition. Throughout the day, ask your child to describe how they are feeling using the feelings chart. Make sure to ask them to use the feelings chart at times when they are happy and calm as well as when they seem worried or frustrated. If they are struggling or resisting the practice when they are angry, anxious, or upset, then ask them to practice only when they are calm or excited until they get the hang of it. Over time, their resistance will decrease, and you can gradually start using the chart for feelings that are more difficult.
  3. Avoid labels like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when talking about feelings. It’s important for your child to be comfortable with a wide range of emotions. While most of us tend to think of calm and happy feelings as ‘good’ and sad, frustrated, and angry feelings as ‘bad,’ it’s important to be neutral when talking to your child about their feelings. All feelings are important and helpful, and we want to teach kids that it’s okay to experience all of them. We also want to teach kids that their parents will always accept them, regardless of how they are feeling.
  4. Be a good role model by labeling your own feelings. Kids learn best when they see others model new skills. So, name your own feelings out loud as they come up throughout the day. Label a wide range of feelings so they can see that all feelings are normal. Focus on labeling emotions during simple situations that kids can understand and relate to. For example, you can mention that you’re feeling frustrated because you are struggling to open a jar of tomato sauce, are feeling disappointed because the store didn’t have what you needed in stock, or are feeling happy because it’s a warm and sunny day outside.
  5. Praise your child when they name their feelings. Praise your child when they label their feelings when you have asked them to, and also praise them when they label their feelings without prompting. Let them know that you’re proud of them, and that it feels good to know what they are feeling on the inside throughout the day.

When it comes to helping your child cope with anxiety, teaching them to recognize and name their feelings is an important first step. With practice and patience, your child will develop the skills they need to express their emotions through words. Over time, you’ll find that they are relying more on words and less on behavior to express how they feel.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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