The ability to name and distinguish between different emotions is a core skill children start learning early in life.
As early as 6 months old, most children can distinguish between major emotions like anger, fear, sadness and happiness. They learn to read faces, tone of voice and body language, and can tell the difference between these emotional states in those around them.
As they start to develop language skills, it’s important we teach them the words to associate with these emotions. Helping a child build their emotional language gives them a better understanding of how to use words to express how they are feeling
As they get older, they learn there are more specific emotions, like frustration, joy and disgust. They can also learn there are more subtle versions of most emotions, like the difference between happiness, joy, contentment, elation and pride.
Activities and Ideas to Help Children Understand Emotions
- Name emotions. Normalize emotions and help children learn emotion words by saying how you are feeling out loud.
- For example, “I'm feeling so happy because I get to spend time with you,” or “I'm feeling frustrated because I dropped my glass of milk.”
- You can also help name emotions you notice in your child, like “It looks like you're feeling angry because I told you that you can't have a donut before dinner,” or “I can see you are feeling sad that your favorite teddy bear had to go in the wash.”
- Finally, you can also practice naming emotions when reading books or watching television as they get older. “Wow, she is crying- she must be really sad.”
- Feelings charades. You can write the name of different emotions on pieces of paper, fold them up, and put them in a jar. Take turns pulling out an emotion and acting out the emotion while the rest of the family guesses what you’re feeling!
- Emotion check-in. Download our emotion chart and create the habit of checking-in with your child on how they’re feeling. You can do this multiple times a day, for example before and after school or right before bed. This could lead to great conversations about what is on their mind.
- Emotion thermometer. Another important part of learning to name emotions is understanding that there are different levels of intensity. Download our emotion thermometer below to help guide this conversation for your child.
- For example, you can highlight how there is a difference in feeling annoyed versus furious! You can also use this download to check in with them, as needed
Talking about and naming emotions is something you can continue doing throughout a child’s development. To build on this skill and help them learn emotion regulation, you can start teaching them how their emotions feel in their body.