Many kids, even those struggling with social skills, can name and identify basic emotions, for example: mad, sad, glad, and scared. But for true social interaction and emotional intelligence, more than these basics are required.
When I work with children who don’t identify emotions well, such as kids and teens with Asperger’s, autism, or ADHD, we spend a great deal of time learning about emotions. This knowledge helps kids in two ways: they manage their emotions more easily, and they deal with other’s emotions more skillfully.
At a very basic level, I start with the four basics feelings listed above. The first step is to identify the feelings of mad, sad, glad and scared. (Even more basic could be only two, glad and bad.) This can be done in a number of ways, such as asking the child how he’s feeling right now, or how he thinks you’re feeling, or how he was feeling when something memorable happened. This feeling identification game can be carried further, such as guessing the feelings of people in photographs or on television shows. Television can be very useful, because, depending on the program, the emotions can be very subtle or very broad. (Any Disney channel kid’s comedy is likely to show very strong, intense, exaggerated emotions, great for beginners. Also, if you record the program you can go back and view it over and over.)
When your child is ready, step into more subtle emotions. You can find great lists of emotion words online, at places like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emotions. Don’t try to tackle them all at once, just as many as you can handle.
Many kids on the autism spectrum love to analyze and classify, and they can do this with emotion. These Wikipedia lists can be ideal for these kids. I’ve worked with some clients who like to graph the emotions, for example showing the intensity of the feeling on a chart. (Elated would be higher than happy, which would be higher than content.) Other kids can graphically show the subtle combinations of how different motions are related to each other.
Just remember, kids on the autism spectrum can think and learn in very different ways than neurotypical kids. Visual and concrete methods can be the best method for them. The goal is to understand emotion, and your children may surprise you once they get started.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.