As adults, we often tell kids who are visibly upset to “use their words,” but what if they don’t have enough of them to choose from?
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, studies “emotional granularity,” which refers the ability to label emotions in a nuanced and specific way. The more accurately we can name our unpleasant feelings, the better our brains can handle them.
If this is a skill that can be learned, it can be certainly learned early. I’ve been trying to help my six-year-old daughter better define her negative emotions so that she can better regulate them. She recently got an illustrated children’s dictionary, and we’ve been working our way through it, a few pages at a time. There’s a section dedicated to “feeling bad words.”
A few examples:
deflated: hopeless or let down; like when you feel as empty as a ball with the air let out
envious: jealous or resentful; when you want something that someone else has
humiliated: ashamed or embarrassed; how you feel if someone pulls a mean prank on you
And there are “angry words,” too:
irritated: annoyed or peeved; like when you hear an annoying song again and again
raging: furious or fuming; like an angry bull on a rampage
spiteful: hateful or mean; like purposefully spilling paint on someone’s work to ruin it
Later on, if she comes home from school upset, I’m hoping she’ll be able to tell me, or at least tell herself, whether she’s feeling anxious or dejected or embarrassed or just hungry and then figure out where to go from there. As Barrett tells Northeastern University: “To prepare how to act, your brain needs to do better than ‘This sucks.’ There’s not a lot of behavioural specificity associated with ‘This sucks.’”
Here are some other ways parents can work on this skill:
Use distinct adjectives to describe your own emotions. Your kid can see how you respond to different situations.
Create an emotion wheel. I like the way this parent made basic categories of emotions and then added more specific feelings to each one.
Have your child keep a diary of their emotions.
Read books where characters experience big feelings. Jack’s Worry is a story about the jitters around new experiences. The Snurtch is about a child’s inner monster that gets in the way of what they want to do. When Miles Gets Mad explores rage, and what kids can do to calm themselves down.