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Building an Emotional Vocabulary

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

It's important to develop an emotional vocabulary because it helps us know what we are feeling and gives us clues of what we need to do. Feelings are there for a reason. Just like pain is a protective factor to keep us safe, feelings are letting us know what is happening in us and around us and what we need to do to make it right. If you touch something hot, you pull away to stop getting hurt. When you get annoyed it might mean that someone has crossed a boundary. The earlier we can recognize the signs in our bodies as feelings that need to be expressed, the better we become at accurately identifying them. We then build our ability to manage the feelings as they increase in intensity. As a result learn to generate empathy with others.

Verbally expressing emotions can be difficult for anyone but it is even more difficult for children. As a child's vocabulary is underdeveloped, they may not have the words to describe the difference between frustrated and annoyed, or scared and nervous. However, they can point to a chart that visually represents this. If we create a visual chart which incorporates the language around emotions, they begin to understand the difference between annoyed, upset, frustrated, angry and furious. If we link these with the physical cues we also teach the intensity of the emotion.

Visual scales are useful to help children recognise the stages of emotions, improve their language for emotions, develop emotional intelligence and empowers children to see that they have choices to manage their own emotions. When making a visual scale make sure that it is something that you have involved your child in and that they like. Place it somewhere that it is seem easily and make sure you talk about it often, not just when they are feeling angry.

Using paint charts is a great way to show the varying intensity of emotions. We don't just experience happy, sad, angry and scared. There are so many other shades of emotions such as relaxed, cheerful, unhappy, miserable, irritated, furious, concerned, nervous or terrified. How we manage all of these emotions vary and we need to explore what we can do that will help us to feel better. Children need to learn that feelings are normal, they change and there are things that we can do to help.

If you are able to identify with your child the different levels of emotions, have them talk about how they feel different. How do they know when they are disappointed or frustrated? What's the difference? What are the clues in their body that will help them work out the intensity of the emotion. Brainstorm with your child what they can do at the varying stages of intensity that will help them feel calmer. Write them on your visual chart so that they can see that there are solutions to help with emotions. This helps them see that they aren't helpless, they are able to manage their own feelings.

The ideas that you use to help calm will vary depending on what setting you are focusing on. What the child can do at school will be different to what they can do at home. However, the key is to come up with as many ideas and possible. Be creative, if they feel like throwing things, then what can they throw safely? Scrunched up paper is safe and quite satisfying, although they may need to clean it up when they are calm. There is a big difference between feeling concerned and terrified. Once a child has become terrified there is not much they can do other than get help from a parent or someone they trust. However, if they are concerned, they can recognise something is wrong and talk to someone, they can do controlled breathing or they can move away from what is making them feel uncomfortable. There needs to be options for every level so that a child learns that there are different options and we need to find what works.

By increasing our child's understanding of emotions in themselves and others you will be better equipped to cope with those emotions in a more constructive way. When you build your emotional vocabulary, you are building your resilience and emotional self-management.

Next time someone asks how you are doing, instead of responding simply with “okay”, or “fine”, try practicing your emotional intelligence by using more emotionally accurate words. Remember the best way to teach our children an emotional vocabulary is to model it ourselves.

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