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!



I am a clinical psychologist with approximately 15 years of experience assessing and treating anxiety and depressive disorders in young children, adolescents, young adults, adults and geriatric populations. I completed a 6-year predoctoral training award at the National Institute of Mental Health, and postdoctoral training at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living/Hartford Hospital. From my clinical and research experiences, I have come to see the struggles of many families deciding when to pursue professional help and feeling very lost in the process. I will address several mental health issues that will help educate and empower my readers to make better mental health decisions for themselves. Welcome to my blog! Johanna Kaplan, Ph.D. Disclaimer-This blog is not and cannot be used in replace of formal therapy. This blog is used to inform and educate and is not a form of informal or formal advice.

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