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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Building Emotional Vocabulary with Kids

Updated: Apr 8, 2019

Imagine this: Your 4 year old is super excited about their cousin coming over to play. You have had breakfast, gotten dressed, all with ease thanks to the enthusiasm about the day. "Are they coming now?" your child asks, looking out the window. "Not yet, but soon", you explain. Suddenly you get a text. It's from your sister. It reads, "We aren't going to make it after all. I think we might have the stomach flu". You look at your 4 year old, with their wide eyes, and know you're going to have to break the news, and it's not going to be pretty...

Many children have difficulty managing transitions and changes, especially those that are disappointing, frustrating, or just plain novel. Temper tantrums and meltdowns can be common among children this age, and for some, last even longer. The best intervention? Building a child's emotional vocabulary.

Why Do Feeling Words Matter So Much?

Teaching feeling words helps kids understand what's happening in their bodies and mind. As adults, we often experience physical sensations along with our feelings. For example, we might recognize the sensation of "butterflies in our stomach" as anxiety, or a sensation of warmth and tightness along with anger. But often kids don't realize that these sensations are connected with a feeling. They need adults to teach them how to recognize, label and understand their emotions. This builds emotional literacy skills, which also enable children to recognize, label and understand others' feelings--a necessary social skill.

When kids--and grown ups--are able to use words to explain the sensations in our bodies, we are less likely to act them out. Toddlers often have temper tantrums or meltdowns, because they don't have words to talk about their feelings, or to help themselves feel better. But as kids grow up and learn to "use their words", these "acting out" behaviors often dissipate.

How Can Adults Help?

Teach your child feeling words. The most effective way to do this is by labeling what your child is feeling when they're feeling it, "You're disappointed" and by modeling yourself--"I'm feeling so excited about today's field trip, it feels like there is electricity in my arms!".

When feeling words are an everyday part of life children learn them quickly! If you need a stronger boost, hang up a feelings poster in a high-traffic area and share stories about feelings.

"Name it to Tame it", says Daniel Siegel in his book "Whole Brain Child". Narrate for your child what has happened. When you practice this skill with kids, they learn important vocabulary, they get in the habit of talking about their experiences, they are more likely to use words than actions to express themselves, and they learn that their internal worlds are important, because their grown ups do the work to try to understand them.

Children also learn what helps them to feel better, so that they can begin to ask for what they need or self-soothe when they are upset. In this way, not only are they learning emotional regulation skills, but they also learn that their inner world is a safe place--they can become upset, but then they have the skills to come back to balance.

Sometimes emotional literacy is a new idea for parents--and many times life can be too busy and/or stressful to pause and create a space to do this kind of emotional work with kids. Creating Space Counseling and Wellness is here to help! I enjoy helping children learn words to understand their feelings, and love using stories to help kids make sense of and master their experiences. Many parents often feel relieved to have someone on their team, someone who can help them to teach their children emotional literacy skills.

If your family could benefit from help with emotion regulation and emotional literacy, call Creating Space Counseling and Wellness today to make an appointment ! 856-281-1664


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