Thoughtful Parenting: Building emotion vocabulary in children

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Did you know babies experience emotions? As they mature, their understanding of emotions grows, too.

Emotions give us information about what is going on around us, and children need adults to help them identify emotions. Understanding how we’re feeling helps us take action. If we feel scared, we might need to be cautious, sadness might be a response to disappointment or loss and joy might occur during unexpected delight. If a child identifies worry, he or she can figure out whether a situation is dangerous or momentarily uncomfortable. If a child senses that a playmate feels sad, he or she might offer a comforting pat on the shoulder. If a child feels frustrated, it might signal him or her to ask for help or take a few deep breaths. Just like learning how to read, children need coaching to identify emotions and support when times are tough. Research also is proving a connection between emotion literacy and academic achievement.

Tips for building emotion vocabulary:

■ Birth to 12 months: Caregivers do everything they can to make their baby feel comfortable, and by 3 months, are enjoying more eye contact, smiling and giggling with their baby. Exaggerate your facial expressions in response to your baby’s expressions: smile really big, make a surprised look when your baby hiccups and talk softly and coo when your baby seems distressed.

■ Toddlers and older: Use emotion words when you notice an emotion in yourself or your child. Say, “I’m feeling (or you seem) happy, sad, excited, scared, uncomfortable, afraid.”

■ 2 years and older: Talk about how your body feels with emotions and what you see your child’s body doing. Say, “When I feel scared, my tummy feels funny.” Or, “I’m feeling really happy. I want to jump up and down because my body feels so good!” Or, “You look angry. Your voice is getting louder and your face is frowny.” Or, “Your voice sounds whiney. I wonder if you’re frustrated?”

■ 3 years and older: Find magazine images of kids’ faces showing different emotions and put these images on the refrigerator door. Point to the face that best matches the emotion you see and say, “I wonder if you are feeling embarrassed.” Have a mirror nearby for your child to look at his own face and compare it to the picture. Make this a fun game and see how many faces can be made.

■ All ages: I love children’s books as a way to talk about emotions. Ask your local librarians about books they enjoy. Talk about the characters, their facial expressions and words they use.

Many caregivers find it difficult to identify and talk about their own emotions. Understanding yourself will help you tune in to your child. Try asking yourself a few times each day, “What emotion am I feeling? What is my body feeling like?” You’ll be surprised at how many emotions you experience.

Barbara Gueldner, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist specializing in children and families. She is a member of the Routt County Early Childhood Council. Read her blog at www.successfulkidstoday.wordpress.com.

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