Teaching emotional literacy to children everyday​

copyright Dr Ken McGill


April 8, 2019


As an Art Psychotherapist in private practice, it is common for me to work with children (ages 4-18) who do not yet possess the emotional literacy to describe their feelings. There can be a multitude of reasons for this. In the past eight years or so of treating children, I have come to find two reoccurring reasons. First, feelings are often difficult to understand, let alone to explain to anyone. Sometimes, even parents do not understand them, or have the know-how to respond efficiently. And the other reason is that children are often not ‘taught’ to talk about their feelings, and openly—be it at home, in school, or other places where feelings often surface. This may be due to previous generations of learned parenting in which feelings are not allowed to be expressed. For instance, in many communal societies such as African and Asian ones, it is often frowned upon to talk about how one feels. In fact, sometimes there is no ‘I’ in saying ‘I feel upset’ or ‘I was disappointed when you said this.’ While it may not be unhealthy for every child’s development and/or for every family situation, as a professional, I always ask parents to make and leave room for children to share their feelings, even if the feelings are convoluted, too direct/strong, or whatever else. We can create this space by teaching feelings to children as early as possible. In this blog I will provide some easy ways to teach children about emotions on a day to day basis. 


There is an apocryphal story that says Inuit languages of the Arctic have at least 50 different word combinations to describe the different varieties of snow that they get….yes, there are that many different types of snow!! And Inuit children learn about and apply the combinations depending on the context. Dr. Gloria Willcox has actually illustrated 50 different emotions in her Feelings Wheel which is available to anyone to use. I sometimes use the wheel with my young clients in my sessions, depending on the child’s age and cognitive abilities (see first image above in the introduction). 

Whether the Inuit story is true or not, children around the world learn to use the words they hear from their culture and family. 


On top of learning one’s own cultural meanings for feelings, children must also learn other people’s emotions (i.e. from other cultures). This is especially true when children relocate with their parents to another country for a period of time. Regardless of where a child is, understanding and accepting emotions as they surface is the first step for him or her to learn how to regulate his/her emotions. Instead of writing about ALL the 50 feelings (from the Wheel), I would rather focus on three feelings that I have come to signify as being ‘big emotions’ for children to understand and handle, either alone or with the aid of a parent. Here are the four in no particular order of importance:


Fear: this is often a reaction to something threatening and it can include experiences of terror, anxiety (fear of a non-specific threat, can be generalised anxiety overall), worry (fear of a specific threat), powerlessness and defenselessness. It is important to underscore here that mammal species who feel fear will often shift into anger mode and use it as a defense mechanism. 


Sadness: this is often a reaction to disappointment and loss and it may include experiences of grief, loneliness and/or depression (can vary from mild to severe). It is important to note here that many children (and adults too) will become angry when they feel they have to defend their feeling of sadness. 


Anger: this is often a ‘very big emotion’ for children (as well as for adults) and is often a reaction to external and internal threat(s). Experiences can involve feelings of irritation, frustration and rage (imagine an erupting volcano). Really important here to highlight: if a child’s anger is not heard, he or she will turn inwards and self-blame. This self-blaming can in turn snowball into even bigger feelings if left unchecked for years such as depression.   


So, this now brings me to ask the much-anticipated question: how can we teach our children about emotions? Simply put: observe what the child (and other people) are feeling and comment on it in a non-judgmental and accepting way. This way, we are teaching the child to identify emotions in themselves (and in others). As we go through our day, we can look for opportunities to acknowledge and validate a child’s feeling(s). Here are a few sentences to help acknowledge your child’s feeling(s): 

  • You look (or sound) angry (or frustrated, sad, etc.). 

  • Wow, you’re jumping up and down, you must be excited! (Don’t forget the exclamation mark because every feeling has its own way of being perceived.)

  • I hear you! You really like playing your video game and you wish you could never stop playing it.

  • I understand. You feel safer when you know exactly what’s going to happen next. Me, too. 


One crucial tip for when talking to your child is to avoid lecturing him or her. Rather, ask open ended questions that will help him or her to learn through self-reflection. For instance, you may want to ask questions such as: 

  • If you felt frustrated at a friend, what could you do?

  • If you felt angry at me, what could you do?

  • If another friend knocked down your block tower, what could you do?

  • What helps you calm down when you’re angry?


When observing other children react to their own emotions, you may want to say the following:

  • That child looks so unhappy. I wonder why he’s so upset.

  • What do you think he/she needs?

  • Is there anything we can do to help?


Questions like the above ones help children to develop empathy, a feeling that fosters human cooperation and our species survival. For instance, when a parent wanders out loud to her child about what a baby sibling may be thinking, feeling, or wanting, the child develops (more) empathy towards her younger sibling; thereby instilling a positive, nurturing relationship between the two children.  


Another method to teaching children emotional literacy is to read books about feelings and how to express them. In fact, research shows that children develop less aggression and more prosocial (positive) behaviours towards their peers when adults read books and talk about feelings. 


Here’s a lovely Dr. Suess story entitled ‘My Many Colored Days’ (narrated by Kathleen Iu on Youtube)


And here are a few books tackling different emotions such as anger and jealousy from different cultural lens. 

So, the good take away here is that when parents consider emotions as being part of the rich fabric of the human experience and talk openly about them in positive ways (even non-positive emotions), children can begin to learn to identify and put into words an array of emotions such as the Inuit children learning different words for different types of snow. Even if naming the emotion isn’t helping to tame it during difficult times, it will at least set children up for taking the first step in learning to manage their behavior.


Until my next post, take great care of you and your little one’s mental health.