Help Your Kids to Speak the Language of Emotions

Published on: April 09, 2021

Is it enough to just ask your child to calm down during emotional outbursts, or is there more you can do to nurture his or her emotional intelligence? Galina Kalinina explains how we can teach children to express their feelings through words. 

By Galina Kalinina

We’re all born with emotions, but nobody is born with emotional intelligence. It’s a learned skill.  Today many parents realize that teaching their kids emotional literacy is just as important as teaching math, reading, and writing. According to the Future of Jobs Survey 2018, World Economic Forum emotional intelligence is one of the top 10 skills in demand today and for the coming future.  While most parents have a general understanding of what happens in the child’s early years, many do not realize at what age their kids can begin to feel complex emotions. Some parents miss the mark by months or even years.

Often and unknowingly we bombard our kids with ‘Emotion Stoppers’. These are the direct and indirect signals sent by parents that can convey the message that emotions are not okay. For example, when our kids are angry, we tell them to calm down; when they are sad, we tell them to get over it. Consequently, our kids then learn to suppress their emotions. Suppression is one way of working with emotions. Unfortunately, though, it’s an unhealthy one as when we deny feelings to a child, we teach them to disconnect from themselves. 

If you name it, you can tame it!

Our emotions are like lights on the life dashboard. They send us important signals about how we experience the world. Marc Brackett, the founder of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, encourages more emotional expression. He and his team developed an approach called RULER that aims to increase childrens’ abilities to ’Recognize emotions in themselves and others, Understand where their emotions come from, Label emotions more precisely with the feeling words, Express and display the emotions, and Regulate (or manage) emotions more effectively.  

In order to correctly recognize feelings in yourself and others, kids first have to have words for those feelings. Parents can play a critical role in building their family’s feeling word vocabulary. This could be done in lots of fun ways. Here are a few of them. 

Feeling meters and emotional intensity

Every feeling has a size. Teach your kids to notice and recognize the degree of the feeling using feeling meters.  When you see your child struggling with the shoelaces ask ‘What are you feeling? How big is your emotion? Is it big? Is it small? Or is it medium?” Let’s say she tells you “I feel angry and my emotion is small”. This is a great opportunity for you to introduce new and more complex feeling words— “It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated. We feel frustrated when something doesn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. Your anger says that you want the situation to change. Let’s have a look together at the hard part of tying the laces”.

Feeling and emotion charts

A feeling or emotion chart is essentially a poster that shows the different feelings that your child may be feeling throughout his or her day. These may be used as a reflection tool after an emotional situation to ask, for example, “What feeling did you feel?” and “How did you get to this feeling?”. Then you can ask another question about the future: “Next time how do you want to feel instead? Can you show me on a chart?”

During emotional waves, the learning center of your child’s brain is shut down. This is why I do not recommend introducing the charts in the middle of a tantrum. Most likely it’ll become a throwing object rather than a learning tool. The best time to introduce the child to the feeling chart is when he or she is calm and ready to learn. Go through each emotion and ask your child to ‘act them out. Look for opportunities to show how to use the language of emotions in practice. For example, “Your sister bumped her head. What do you think she is feeling? She must feel hurt”. Or “Did you notice how your friend felt when you told him “I do not want to play with you anymore”. Do you think he was feeling left out?”

There are many free and paid options available. Choose what matches your child’s age and the complexity of words you want to teach.   

Read books and watch movies about feelings

Reading a book or watching a movie together lets you engage with your child in low-key chats about feelings. Through the debriefing process, your child learns new ways to understand and express their own feelings. Through stories, characters show what feelings look like and model how to react to emotions.

While it’s true that children have a natural capacity to understand and express feelings, it is also true that these capacities can be further developed. Take no shortcuts to build skills as important as emotional intelligence and invest in developing your child’s feeling vocabulary today.


World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report 2018:

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Ruler approach:

Images courtesy of the author

About the Author

Galina is the founder of ParentUp.  Her mission is to help parents to prepare and become great in the most important job of their life — being a parent. Galina is a wife, mother of two, and a certified PCC ICF coach. Please visit to download free parenting resources.

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