Building Your Child’s Emotional Vocabulary

Young children often have difficulty identifying how they are feeling and how to express their emotions appropriately.  Parents may observe behaviors such as hitting, biting, tantrums or outbursts at these times. While these moments can be challenging, they can also be a learning opportunity for your child in understanding and using “thinking and feeling” words. According to The Hanen Centre, studies show that children typically learn these types of words from their parents during everyday activities and conversation.

Young children’s first thoughts and feelings revolve around their own wants and needs (“I want juice”) and their physical feelings (“I’m hungry”). As early as age two, they learn to talk about what other people are feeling (He’s sad”). It will take a number of years before children understand and use a wide variety of these more complex and abstract words, even beyond the age of eight. 

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) suggests these simple strategies that you can use to help your child express their feelings:

  • Name the feeling: Help your child express their feelings by giving them labels. “You said ‘more swing’, but it’s time to go. You are sad.” By naming feelings, it helps your child develop an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about their feelings.
  • Identify feelings in themselves and others: Talk about feelings they have and those that you see in others. “I see you smiling, are you happy?” or “She fell down, how do you think she feels?”
  • Talk about how feelings can be expressed: Talk about your own feelings and how you express those feelings. What do you do when you get mad? How do people know you are happy? Practice ways that your child can express their emotions. Talk about feelings when playing games, eating dinner or riding in the car. The more your child practices, the quicker they will learn.

Michigan State University Extension suggests increasing your child’s emotional vocabulary by using many different and specific words to describe feelings.  You can check out a diverse list of feeling words here.

Children’s storybooks, especially those with pictures, can help illustrate what people are thinking and feeling. Some favorite picture books include: “The Great Big Book of Feelings” by Marty Hoffman, “The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain,  “Tiger Days” by M.H. Clark, and “The Color Monster” by Anna Llenas.

For more information and resources about supporting your child’s emotional development visit the CSEFEL website.

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