Promoting Emotional Literacy in Kids


To correctly label an emotion is to have mastery over it. Kids who are skilled at using words to express feelings are less likely to become overwhelmed in emotionally charged situations. Studies show that children as young as two, when shown facial expressions, are capable of discerning and naming the six basic emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust. Kids who have access to a variety of words for identifying these basic emotions, and are skilled at verbally elaborating upon them, experience a general sense of emotional control.

Emotion Words and Social Goals

When kids struggle to choose the right emotion-words to bring about desired social outcomes they are on their way to greater emotional literacy. For example, 4 year-old Lindsey may be happily playing alone and become irate because her 7 year-old sister Tonya has entered her play space. She may want Tonya to leave so she can resume playing alone. If Lindsey curtly yells at Tonya, “Go away, you’re nasty,” Tonya may start crying and linger around, or even advance on her in anger. Neither of these outcomes matches Lindsey’s desired one, which is to be left alone to play. However, saying, “Right now I want to play alone. I’m happy playing by myself,” in a bold but reasonable tone of voice increases Lindsey’s chances of having her wish met

Freezing up Emotionally

Over-reactions and conflicts are less frequent with kids who are able to finesse their emotion-word choices. But, adeptness at using words to identify and express feelings can also prevent a kid from “under-reacting” in emotionally charged situations. When confronted with others’ excitement, distress, or anger, kids sometimes cope by emotionally disconnecting. “Freezing up,” or muting their emotional reactions in this way can disable their receptivity to share in others’ delight, empathize with others in moments of distress, and protect themselves from others’ anger.  Good emotional literacy simply lessens the chances that kids will not shut down in response to others’ emotions.

Words that Show Feelings Come and Go

Learning to express feelings to reflect their transitory nature also enhances emotional literacy. The kid who can actually express the fact that feelings come and go—and  that new feelings often take their place—is  not likely to be overwhelmed by his or her own emotionality or that of others. Young children’s immature cognitive and linguistic development predisposes them to make over-generalizations. To adults, their emotional statements sound absolute and permanent: “I hate you. You’re not my friend:” “I never do anything right. I’m a loser;” “You’re always mad at me. You don’t love me.” Acquiring expressions that capture the transitory nature of feelings is one of the challenging tasks of young childhood, and it takes a lot of practice for kids to master the nuances: “I’m mad at you right now. You took my doll without asking”; “I’m in a grumpy mood this morning;” “I don’t like you when you scream. You’re a fun friend when you don’t scream.”

Steps for Parents to Take

  • Model use of non-absolutist language and “qualifiers” when expressing strong emotions: “Sometimes I get frustrated when you don’t listen to me” not “You never listen”; “When you use a calm voice I get less frustrated with you” not “You always yell and it makes me so mad”; “It’s easier for me to be kind and generous when you ask before you take things” not “Don’t you have any manners? I’m mad because you’re turning into a selfish kid.”

  • Model use of language that captures the transitory nature of feelings: “Right now I’m angry with you because you hit your sister. I know I won’t stay angry with you. But, that’s how I’m feeling right this minute” not “You’re always so rough with your sister. Go to your room, I can’t deal with you”; “I’m sad hearing about you getting a detention at school. I’ll need some time to get over it. You’ve had such a good week and I have been so pleased. I’m sure I’ll get back to feeling pleased, but for now, honestly, I’m sad about it all” not “What got into you? I’m very disappointed!”

  • Coax kids to rephrase global emotional expressions and prompt them to be more specific: “You say that your teacher hates you, when last Monday I saw her hug you when you arrived for school. Was there something that happened today making your teacher disappointed with your behavior? Was there something she said or did that bothered you?”

  • Discourage use of absolutist words like “always” and “never,” and provide alternative tempered word choices: “You honestly think I never take your side and always take your brother’s side, and because of this I’m a lousy dad? I know you’re mad at me right now, but “never” take your side? Maybe, it’s more like you feel I don’t take your side enough of the time, or too much of the time?

  • Mirror your kid’s feelings and softly provide suitable emotion-word choices: “I can see you’re hiding your face with your hands. Maybe this is your way of telling me you’re embarrassed? Or, feelings shy?” “You’re jumping up and down with such joy, but I can’t get what you’re telling me. Are you really, really happy because you crossed the monkey bars on your own? Is it more than really, really happy and more like super excited?