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Enhancing a Young Child’s Emotional Vocabulary

Social development and emotional development are often overshadowed by their more attention-getting sibling, intellectual development. From birth, parents are keen to enhance their child’s intellectual potential, by providing a multitude of learning experiences that target skill development across a variety of cognitive and academic domains. As parents, we enthusiastically find ways to target areas of intellectual development for our children – through the toys we buy, the outings we arrange, the activities we schedule – yet, we often miss opportunities to do the same for our child’s social and emotional skills.

From birth, we can promote healthy social and emotional development as parents by providing our children with a broad emotional vocabulary. Just as we spend time teaching children about the words for objects, people and places in their environment, we need to spend time helping children learn about the words for their feelings. A strong awareness of one’s own feelings and those of others sets the stage for healthy emotion regulation and prosocial behaviour with peers.

1. Bring Attention to Feelings…

As part of your conversations with your children, parents are encouraged to comment on their own experiences with feelings (e.g., “Do you remember when the dog snuck up on me when I was making dinner? Didn’t that make me feel surprised!”). We can also bring attention to a child’s own experiences with feelings by using our feelings as an entry (e.g., “Sometimes Mommy feels grumpy when she wakes up too early.  What are some things that make you feel grumpy?”).

2. …But Don’t Overwhelm Children with Adult Problems

As always, choose feelings and experiences that suit the developmental level of your child, as well as those over which you feel control. If you were to talk about being worried at work, letting your child know that “Daddy is a little worried about meeting some new people at work today, because sometimes it takes time to get to know new people” is better to discuss than “Daddy is worried because he has a client presentation and the last one didn’t go so well.” We ultimately don’t want children overwhelmed with big emotions or adult situations that they don’t have the capacity to fully process or understand.

3. Read Familiar Favourites with a Focus on Emotions

Reading serves a great opportunity to develop your child’s emotional vocabulary. When reading with your child, parents can comment on characters’ feelings, even if emotions are not mentioned explicitly (e.g., “Thomas really didn’t not want to put on his snowsuit. How do you think he was feeling? Yes, he definitely seemed mad and maybe even a little frustrated!”).

4. Choose Books with a Feelings Focus

Some children’s books do a particularly great job at bringing emotions to your child’s attention. Through their focus on feelings, these stories provide a great jumping off point for further discussion older toddlers, preschoolers and young school-age children.  Here are but a few that we have really enjoyed:

All Types of Feelings

  • The Way I Feel – Janan Cain
  • Today I Feel Silly – Jamie Lee Curtis
  • Glad Monster, Sad Monster – Ed Emberley
  • How Are You Peeling? Foods with Moods – Seymour Freeman
  • Little Ms. & Mr. Books  (e.g., Little Miss Bossy, Mr. Silly) – Roger Hargreaves
  • On Monday When It Rained – Cherryl Kachenmeister
  • The Feelings Book – Todd Par

Grumpiness, Grouchiness & Disappointment

  • Franklin’s Bad Day – Paulette Bourgeois
  • The Grouchy Ladybug – Eric Carle
  • What Are You So Grumpy About? – Tom Lichtenheld
  • C. R. Mudgeon – Leslie Miri
  • Grumpy Bird – Jeremy Tankard

 Sadness & Hurt

  • Cheer Up Your Teddy Bear, Emily Brown – Cressida Cowell
  • Chrysanthemum – Kevin Henkes
  • Cheer Up Mouse – Jed Henry
  • The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein
  • Boo Hoo Bird – Jeremy Tankard

Worry, Fear & Being Brave

  • My Brave Year of Firsts – Jamie Lee Curtis
  • The I’m Not Scared Book – Todd Parr
  • Is a Worry Worrying You? – Ferida Wolff
  • Scaredy Squirrel Series – Melanie Watt

Anger & Frustration

  • When Sophie Gets Really, Really, Really Angry – Molly Bang
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – Jackie Viorst
  • You’re Finally Here – Melanie Watt
  • Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus – Mo Willem

Feeling Calm & Looking On the Bright Side

  • A Good Day – Kevin Henkes
  • Good News, Bad News – Jeff Mack
  • Ernest – Catherine Rayner
  • The Quiet Book – Deborah Underwood

 

 

Meredith Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych.

About Meredith Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Meredith A. M. Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience in psychological assessment and treatment of children, youth and their families across a range of developmental and mental health conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), anxiety and mood disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, disruptive behaviour disorders, adjustment disorders, learning disabilities, and parent-child relational conflict. She brings exceptional skill to the provision of care for children and families and strives to collaborate with clinicians across disciplines, to best support the complex needs of her clients.

Learn more about Meredith Gillespie, Ph.D., C.Psych.

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