Building your Child’s Emotional Vocabulary

“Me no yike (sic) what are you doing” this is Metu’s current favorite expression. He just turned two. I find it quite cute when he says it but as I thought about it the other day, I realized how empowering it just be for him to be able to express a dislike and know that he will be heard and listened to. As I spend more time with children and even adults, I realize that while there is a huge focus on early literacy and vocabulary building, not enough effort is put into building the child’s emotional vocabulary.

When I say emotional vocabulary, I refer to words, phrases, and expressions (verbal and non-verbal) that allow a person to communicate their feelings, likes and dislikes. I think it is so important for several reasons:

Supports the development of positive relationships. Communication is one of the cornerstone of possible relationships and a rich emotional vocabulary aids communication

  • Helps one develop empathy. You have to to able to observe feelings in others to be able to share them
  • Encourages dialog and understanding
  • Allows for peaceful conflict resolution
  • Reduces tantrums because they can express themselves

How can we help our children build a rich emotional vocabulary?

5 ways to build your child’s emotional vocabulary

1. Help them recognize them feelings from birth: to be able to communicate a feeling, one must first be able to recognize it. We can help children recognize the way they feel even from birth. We can vocalize what we think the child might be feeling. Here are some examples:

“You look uncomfortable. Is your diaper wet? I’ll check”

” Did that sound startle you?”

“I see you tugging your ear. You must be tired. It’s probably time for a nap”

“Look at that big smile! Seeing daddy makes me happy too”

Even if you didn’t start at birth, you can start today! This can continue as the child progresses through the stages of development. Some more examples “You seem frustrated, may I help you?”

“Are you upset? It’s hard when we don’t get what you want”

“You are excited! I’d be excited too.”

2. Encourage the child to vocalize feelings: As the child gets old and begins to speak, you can encourage them to start verbally identifying their feelings and using the emotional vocabulary they have acquired: you can ask questions like “how did you feel?” “How did that make you feel” “Do you feel like throwing something because you’re angry?”

“What would you like to say to him?” “Maybe you can tell her how you felt when she took away your toy.”

3. Listen when the child expresses their feelings and respond respectfully and appropriately. Always acknowledge the child’s expressions and don’t negate it. It’s so easy to tell the child “it’s ok” or “you’re ok.” Even I make this mistake sometimes but this negates the child’s feeling. It is so much better to acknowledge by restating what the child say. ” You’re upset because…” “I’m sorry you are upset.” “Your excitement is contagious. Now I’m excited too!” You can also empathize and then work with the child to resolve. “What would make you feel better?” “What can we do so that we are both happy?”

Acknowledging the child’s feelings does not necessarily mean agreeing with their actions. I frequently say things like “it’s ok to be upset but we should not hit people.” Or “I know you’re upset but I can’t let you throw that. It’s not safe” And later when the child is calmer, we discuss better ways to deal with the feeling.

4. Model by expressing your own feelings. Children between the ages of 0-6 are in the period of the absorbent mind, they learn by observing and absorbing everything going on in the environment. Therefore one of the best ways to help a child learn something during this stage is to model it. Share how you feel with your child. “That made me feel really happy!” “I’m trying not to get frustrated but what you’re doing is making it really hard.” “I need to calm down. Can you step away for a few minutes?” “I’m so excited I could jump! Actually I’ll jump.”
Model to the child the whole range of feelings, make sure you model using the vocabulary as well as the right ways to express those feelings or deal with them.

5. Another way to enrich your child’s emotional vocabulary is through books. There are books that deal specifically with feelings. They show pictorial examples for each feeling and give names. Others discuss how to deal with the emotions.Even books not specifically about emotions can be used to discuss and enrich the emotional vocabulary though. When looking at illustrations or discussing a book with your child, you can ask what they think the character is feeling, what made them feel that way, how they reacted etc. we also like this emotions deck from Marie-Claire. I think they would be ideal for the 3+ crowd.
Bonus : The Nigerian culture does not seem to encourage the verbal and physical expression of love. We grow up knowing our parents love us because they provide our needs etc but it is not a replacement for telling your child “I love you” as often as as possible. Reassuring them often of your love even when they are not on their best behavior is such a gift and confidence builder. It will also make a difference for when they are in incomfortable situations. It is your voice reassuring them that they will hear in their minds. Accompany your words with touch. Give your child at least one hug daily and remind them of one thing you love about them.

Want to learn more about supporting your toddler at home using Montessori principles? Sign up for the Understanding and Supporting your Toddler Course starting April 17, 2016

What are some other ways that you enrich your child’s emotional vocabulary?

3 thoughts on “Building your Child’s Emotional Vocabulary

  1. This is a wonderful article. Thank you very very much. Is there a way I can share it that you would be happy with?

    Christine Laubin


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