Emotional Vocabulary

When children and even teenagers are asked how they are feeling, they frequently have difficulties expressing themselves (you may hear the “I dunno” response frequently). Parents I work with can see their children “act out,” whether in temper tantrums or by outright disobeying them. There can be a multitude of reasons as to the causes of these behaviors, but one I make sure to address is identifying and developing an emotional vocabulary. An emotional vocabulary means being able to identify the internal experience you are feeling and being able to express yourself in an effective manner.

Around ages 3-5, pre-school age children are first exposed to the meaning of rudimentary, basic emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, and anger). Typically, they learn from their environment and their peers that there are “good” emotions (happiness) and “bad” emotions (sadness, fear, anger). Therefore, any time they experience fear (or anxiety) or sadness and anger, they make the association that what they are feeling is wrong or “bad.” If a child’s emotional vocabulary does not develop beyond these basic types of understanding, as they get older you may see behavioral problems develop as they are not properly able to express themselves, and therefore work through their problems (internal or external) effectively.

I gave a talk recently at a local elementary school and discussed this issue with parents. The parents I speak with continually are surprised by the importance, but also direct simplicity of this issue. They frequently ask, “What can I do to start expanding my child’s emotional vocabulary?” Well, I like to de-label the basic emotions to start. First, I challenge my patients to think about times in their lives when it would be GOOD to feel sad, or when it would be BAD to feel happy.

A particularly effective example I like to use:

Imagine your dog gets sick from eating a sock. Why would it be BAD to be happy in this situation?”


What’s the answer here? Well, because you love your dog and it would mean you did not care about them if they are in pain. These types of examples challenge a child’s basic understanding of emotion and begin their education in the true complexity of emotions.

As children develop their emotional vocabulary it is important that parents begin to observe their behaviors to assist them in expressing themselves more effectively. For example, if your child is throwing a temper tantrum on the floor, it is probable they are feeling frustrated because something they want or something they want to do is not happening. Temper tantrums are the behavioral manifestation of their emotion. However, wouldn’t it be more effective to say, “Mom/Dad, I am feeling frustrated with XY and Z and I need help problem-solving.” You may be thinking, there is no way my 3 year-old child can implement this strategy, but I am here to say, yes they can and I have witnessed it first hand. I am not promising this will work every time, but it is a definitive step in the right direction and can ease stress and increase communication all at once. Try developing your emotional vocabulary this week and let me know how it goes!



When I teach my undergraduate classes in Abnormal Psychology or when I first meet with my kids, parents and families, I discuss with them the important of balance. When I have a patient that comes in and they are experiencing too much anxiety or depression, I commonly hear, “How can I no longer feel any anxiety or sadness?” This is an interesting question because is it actually good to feel no/zero amounts of anxiety or sadness? The answer–it’s not! For example, anxiety in moderate and manageable doses leads us to feel motivated to get our work done, to get up in the morning and brush our teeth, to get out of bed even when our kids have kept us up the night before. We need anxiety to function, but it is all about what is your “normal.” I always put this word into quotations, even with my patients in session because everyone has their own normal. More anxiety may work for one person (i.e., more productive at work, more attentive to their spouses or childrens’ needs), but for another it may be too much. This leads me to discuss when is the anxiety or depression your child is experiencing too much? Because children have a limited emotional vocabulary (something I will address in my next blog post), it is important as parents to look for the overt behavioral signs of anxiety and depression. These can include but are not limited to avoiding school work, friends, activities during or out of school, low tolerance for stressful situations and wanting to escape, spending copious amounts of time in bed, not engaging in conversations, and other behaviors like crying or having tantrum behaviors. These can be “normal” in the context of them happening every now and then, but we know that we have reached a clinical level where professional intervention may be necessary when they are happening with increased intensity and frequency. If your child is not functioning in their life as they were previously, it is important to recognize that your child may be out of balance and may be in need of a professional evaluation.