How to Build a Feelings Vocabulary

How to Build a Feelings Vocabulary

Young children experience a variety of emotions, but they lack the vocabulary to express how they are feeling. While play is the most natural way for children to communicate, we can help them develop a vocabulary of words to express feelings verbally as well.

Research indicates that when children learn a variety of words to describe their emotions, they are better able to identify what they feel and express it in a healthy and adaptive way. This skill is referred to as emotional intelligence, or the ability to notice what we are feeling, express those feelings in a socially appropriate way and have empathy for others. Between 2003 and 2007, I worked in preschool settings facilitating healthy development of emotional intelligence through my Preschool Emotion Education Program. I saw first-hand that when children were provided a chance to learn new words for expressing emotion, aggression levels in the classroom dropped dramatically. This research supports the finding that “emotion coaching” by parents and teachers, from a place of warmth and love, improves a child’s relationships with others and decreases behavioral challenges.

Doesn’t it make sense? When a child is able to tell you “I feel frustrated!” and you respond, “Oh, honey, I hear that you really do feel frustrated. I can understand!” that frustration is diluted because the child feels she is being heard. Children learn best in a loving, supportive, trusting environment.

Here are some ideas for how you can help your child develop a “feelings vocabulary” to better express his emotions:

  1. Read your child books about feelings, such as Glad Monster, Sad Monster: A Book About Feelings by Anne Miranda or My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss
  2. Use mirrors to practice different facial expressions while looking at your reflections together, and discuss the feelings each face represents.
  3. Cut out photos of various faces and create flashcards for a “Name That Feeling” game. Introduce the visual image of the face with the audible word to describe the feelings it shows, and see if your child can imitate that feeling, using a mirror to see how her facial expression changes. 
  4. Create or buy a “feelings faces” poster to hang up in a prominent place in your house. Ask your child to point to the picture on the poster that shows how she is feeling. You can then read the word for that emotion aloud empathetically, showing that you understand how he feels.
  5. Be a role model for your child. Practice what you teach. Be sure to identify your own feelings whenever possible and express out loud, “I am feeling excited that we are going to the park together!” or “I am feeling frustrated right now because you are running away from me when I am trying to help you put on your shoes.”

If we lead by example and use playful activities as teaching opportunities, we can help our children grow a rich vocabulary of “feelings words” and empower them to be heard and understood!

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