Give Kids an Emotion Vocabulary

“It’s not easy to learn to whistle
if there’s no one to show you how.”
– Janusz Korczak, King Matt the First

Remember that important milestone in moral development called perspective-taking? It enables us to see from another person’s point of view, to understand that they are afraid or frustrated or overjoyed or worried. Perspective-taking is possible because all humans feel the same emotions no matter how different we may be in culture, nationality, race, gender, or age. So paying attention to how people feel and labeling those emotions gives kids an emotional vocabulary. “He’s frustrated right now.” “She looks really hopeful.” “I think he’s worried.” “Do you think she might be afraid?” This helps children develop empathy.

Teaching children to recognize their own emotions is important as well. For younger children, it’s as simple as, “You’re angry, aren’t you?” Or “You’re so eager you can hardly wait.” With older kids, we can fit our comments into the course of conversation. “You look surprised. What were you expecting?” Or “You seem disappointed. So what will you do now?” Then it’s good to pause and give the child time to confirm our assessment or to correct us. If we say, “You look scared,” the child may answer, “No, I’m just worried.” Recognizing our own emotions and talking about the way we feel helps us handle our feelings in wise and healthy ways. It’s a step toward self-control.

For older children, we might refer to a current event. It could be local to their school or neighborhood, or it could be national or international. We might say something like, “Wow! I can only begin to imagine how that person must feel. What about you?” We can also do this with historical events or fictional stories told in movies, books, and television. We can even ask these questions about Bible stories.

Perspective-taking and identifying emotions is a stepping stone toward rejoicing with those who rejoice, mourning with those who mourn, and actually helping others if and when it’s appropriate. First empathy and then, “How can I help?”

Adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Top image from Pixabay