Emotions matter. Studies show that emotions have a huge impact on our learning, our attention, and our memories. Emotions influence our decision making and color our relationships. They even affect our health. Research shows that children who develop emotional intelligence skills are kinder, happier, healthier, and more successful.

How do you help your child develop the skills to be emotionally intelligent? One way is by helping them build the vocabulary they need to think and talk about their emotional lives. How often do we need to say how we are feeling but can’t find the right words? This is particularly evident when children want to express complex emotional experiences. Expanding their vocabulary of feeling words can help children voice their thoughts and emotions — a crucial skill in helping them get the attention and affection they need. Armed with a rich vocabulary to describe their feelings, children not only understand themselves better, but they understand and communicate with others better as well. These things, in turn, help children cultivate better relationships.

The Feeling Words Curriculum was developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence for the classroom, but families can use it, too. GreatSchools’ online tools will help your family develop a shared vocabulary of emotion words. The basic idea is to get your children to expand their feeling words vocabularies through personal reflection, creativity, storytelling, and conversation.

How do you try this at home?

Can you guess what I was feeling?

Share a personal story of when you felt a certain way, but don’t identify the actual feeling word. Then ask your child to think of a time when they experienced that same feeling. Finally, tell your child the feeling word you were thinking of and find out whether you were both talking about the same word. Sharing stories within the family is a natural activity, but sharing stories with a focus on naming and understanding the emotions embedded in a story can help you learn more about one another and build empathy in the family.

(Watch examples of feeling word stories in our Do you feel me? feeling words game and video series.)

What was he feeling?

You can also introduce new feeling words through literature. While reading with your child, ask how characters in the story are feeling and if your child has ever felt that way. These discussions encourage the development of higher-level thinking skills. Try naming the feeling beyond “happy” or “sad” e.g. curious, generous, disappointed, or elated. (Want a fun activity? Try our Mad-Sad-Glad Libs!)

Express yourself!

Another step in the process is to explore the feeling word artistically. It could be in the form of a drawing, an abstract design, a theatrical interpretation, or through some other artistic medium. “Making a creative connection deepens the understanding of the feeling because both hemispheres of the brain are working in tandem — and it’s fun,” says Kathryn Lee, Director of RULER for Families at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Feelings – grabbed from headlines!

To help your child understand how a particular feeling plays out in the world, look for an example of a person from your community or even in the news experiencing this feeling. These “real world stories” are great opportunities for discussion. How did the person exhibit this feeling? Was it a healthy response that helped them achieve their goal or did their expression of the feeling make things worse? For example, if a movie star has expressed frustration at a paparazzo by attacking him, you might discuss how the celebrity could have expressed their frustration more productively. Sharing your perspectives as a family can help all members develop a repertoire of strategies that they can use for responding to a range of emotions and for handling challenging moments.

By exploring feeling words within your own experience and the surrounding world, you can help your child develop emotional intelligence. As the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence staff like to say, “A word is a world.” By exploring new feeling words together as a family, you just may open up rich new worlds in addition to building your child’s feeling words vocabulary.

This is a curriculum used in the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program (@emotionallyintelligentschools). The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence uses the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society. Check out the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s other tools.

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Updated: August 5, 2019