There’s a word for how they’re feeling
Let’s start with an example
Three-year-old Nate sat in his father’s lap waiting for his doctor’s appointment. He held tightly to his father hand when his name was called, knowing that he was going to get a shot. His father asked, “Are you feeling scared?” Nate shook his head, “No Dad, just nervous.” Hearing these words, Nate’s dad relaxed and said, “I feel nervous when I get shots, too. You know what helps me? Taking a deep breath. Want to try that together?”
What’s going on
Knowing that Nate was nervous, but not scared, helped his father do the right thing to support him. If Nate felt scared or even terrified, his dad might have used a different strategy. We can feel scared about the unknown so Nate’s dad might have explained what was about to happen to calm him down. But hearing that Nate was nervous helped his dad understand Nate knew what was about to happen and what he needed was some help to relax.
When we don’t have the right word to match what we’re feeling, it can be hard to make sense of what is going on in our bodies and our minds. Have you ever tried to come up with the name of a movie or a song and you just can’t? It’s on the tip of your tongue and you’re distracted by not knowing it. When you finally locate it and say it out loud, there’s a sense of relief. It’s the same experience when we don’t have the right word to label our feelings. We get stuck trying to figure it out. Helping your child learn lots of different “feeling words” and being able to match those words to their feelings will help them not to get stuck.
How to help your child
Whether your child is an infant, toddler, or preschooler, using a wide range of feeling words when you talk about your own feelings throughout the day can help your child build a rich feelings vocabulary. When you use a new feeling word, explain what the word means and what happened that led you to feel that way.
Great feeling words to introduce in early childhood include:
More ideas to try at home
Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D.
Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and expert on emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning. She was a member of the Yale University Department of Psychology’s research faculty, the founding deputy director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, as well as a co-developer of the RULER framework for teaching emotional intelligence in preschool through middle school classrooms. Dr. Rivers is currently the Executive Director at iThrive, a non-profit that helps teens develop social and emotional skills, and positive psychology habits through the use of digital games.
Shauna Tominey, Ph.D.
Shauna Tominey, Ph.D. is an experienced early childhood and parenting educator with a great deal of experience in research programs promoting social and emotional skills for both children and adults. She also co-authored the book Stop, Think, Act: Integrating Self-Regulation in the Early Childhood Classroom. Dr. Tominey is taking on a new role as an Assistant Professor of Practice and Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University.