Helping Children Build Emotional Literacy


For children, big emotions can be intense and confusing. For parents, big emotions can easily be misconstrued as a distraction from whatever else is happening in one’s life.

Yet living a fulfilling life is largely dependent upon whether one can navigates difficult emotional terrain. Preparing our children to manage emotions as adults is therefore of prime importance.

It is possible for children to develop emotional management skills when we view their emotions for what they really are:  rather than being a distraction, emotions are actually an essential part of the life. They are not meant to be gotten around, but lived through.

Two ways to help children live through their emotions are to identify emotions as they arise, and to describe them in normal conversation. Identifying and describing emotions can foster emotional literacy in children, putting them on the right track to manage their emotions as adults.

Identifying emotions

It can be very comforting for an emotional child, especially a distressed child, to know that what they are experiencing can be reduced to a name. After all, if there is a term commonly understood to convey what they are experiencing, then what they are experiencing must be normal.

You can equip yourself to identify emotions by developing a vocabulary of emotions. Table 1 below provides words representing three layers of an emotional hierarchy, as described by relationship and emotion researcher Phillip Shaver, et al.[i]

The Shaver table is organized in a way conducive to progressive learning. The terms listed as primary emotions, being the most common as well as the simplest, are perhaps the most relatable to children. For example, the concept of sadness—a primary emotion—is easily grasped by most children. The secondary terms are subsets of the primary terms. Secondary terms offer more specific descriptions that are variations on the primary terms, and then likewise for the tertiary terms. For example, the secondary term disappointment describes a certain kind of sadness associated with expectations not being met. The tertiary term dismay offers still richer detail, connoting disillusionment and the lowering of future expectations. As they grow, children can be familiarized with more and more of the secondary terms, and finally the tertiary terms.

Table 1. Emotions

Emo table 1.JPG

This table should help you to build your emotional vocabulary so that you can identify emotions with your child. You can identify your child’s emotions, your own, those of a bystander, or of a fictional character. They key is developing a vocabulary that the child can use to make sense of the world, and to comfort them into knowing that these things called emotions are normal.

Describing Emotions

After identifying the emotions, you can describe the indicators that accompany those emotions. Those indicators are behavioral impulses, facial expressions, and physiological changes.[ii] Table 2 summarizes all three types of emotional indicators for all of Shaver’s primary emotions. Disgust, one of the six emotions considered by facial expression expert Paul Ekman to be universal[iii] but not recognized as primary by Shaver, has also been included. In addition to these descriptions, Table 2 also includes translations (as inspired by the works of children’s book author Cornelia Spelman) potentially useful for very small children.

Table 2. Descriptions of Emotions

Emo table 2.JPG

Putting It Into Practice

As an example for how to put all this into practice, consider a toddler having a tantrum. At the onset of the tantrum, attempts to communicate may only overwhelming the child. Perhaps some rudimentary emotional identification, partial emotional descriptions, and behavioral limit setting is all that will be possible. “Oh my goodness, you must feel angry. Your face is all red and you’re thrashing about. No throwing, though.”

There comes a point in most tantrums where a predominantly angry feeling transitions to a predominantly sad feeling.[xxii] When your child’s anger finally starts to wane, the time is ripe for listening, describing, and limit setting. You may need to elicit information. Consider the following phrases:

  • “Why did you do that?”

  • “That gave you a strong, hot feeling, didn’t it? That’s called anger.”

  • “Were you angry, very angry, or very, very angry? Oh, then you were furious.”

  • “I’ll bet your heart was beating very fast. Does it seem like it’s slowing down now?”

  • “Your eyebrows were pulled down when you were angry, but now they are raised up. Are you feeling sad now?”

  • “Different people do different things to calm down. Let’s try breathing in and out together. No? Okay, let’s try counting to ten. Would a hug help you feel better? How about coloring? Reading?”

  • “What do you think would help next time you start to feel angry?”

  • “Some things are okay to do when feeling angry, other things are not. Let’s talk about what those things are.”

Try to keep it short—there is no need to cram all of the information from Tables 1 or 2 into a single conversation. You’ll have lots of opportunities to cover bits at a time. At times, it may seem like more of a monologue than a conversation—and that’s okay, too.

Having these types of conversations with your child helps them to take the mystery out of intense emotions. Instead of relying on imagination, the child instead can use their growing library of descriptions to make sense of emotional experiences. And with a growing body of experience the child may begin to recognize the behavioral, expressive, and physiological changes signaling the onset, peak, and decline of the hot moment. The child will come to know that hot moments follow a predictable pattern. They will learn to gauge the intensity of emotions. They will learn the best soothing techniques for their personality.

With growing knowledge comes growing power. Instead of being managed by emotions, the emotionally aware child gradually learns to manage their emotions.

[i] Shaver, Phillip, Judith Schwartz, Donald Kirson, and Cary O’connor. “Emotion knowledge: Further exploration of a prototype approach.” Journal of personality and social psychology 52, no. 6 (1987): 1067.

[ii] “What is emotion? 4 ways of manifestation, part 3.” Experiencing Architecture. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[iii] Ekman, Paul, and Dacher Keltner. “Universal facial expressions of emotion.” California mental health research digest 8, no. 4 (1970): 151–158.

[iv] Inspired by Cornelia Maude Spelman’s The way I feel books: When I feel angry. Albert Whitman and Company, 2000. When I feel sad. Albert Whitman and Company, 2002. When I feel scared. Albert Whitman and Company, 2002.

[v] Moglen, Laurel. “The science of parental love.” The Mother Company. Accessed August 9, 2015.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “The seven basic emotions: Do you know them?” Humanintell. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[viii] Santangelo, Paolo. From skin to heart: Perceptions of emotions and bodily sensations in traditional Chinese culture. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006: 35.

[ix] “Surprise (emotion).” Wikipedia. Accessed August 9, 2015.

[x] “The seven basic emotions: Do you know them?” Humanintell. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[xi] “Surprise (emotion).” Wikipedia. Accessed August 9, 2015.

[xii] Mills, Harry Mills. “Physiology of anger.” Mental Help. Accessed June 10, 2016.

[xiii] “Anger.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[xiv] “The seven basic emotions: Do you know them?” Humanintell. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[xv] “Affect theory.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[xvi] Mills, Harry Mills. “Physiology of anger.” Mental Help. Accessed June 10, 2016.

[xvii] “Sadness.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 9, 2015.

[xviii] “The seven basic emotions: Do you know them?” Humanintell. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] “Fear.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 9, 2015.

[xxi] “Disgust.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 10, 2015.

[xxii] Green, James A., Pamela G. Whitney, and Michael Potegal. “Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children’s tantrums.” Emotion 11, no. 5 (2011): 1124–1133.

How to Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Helping Children Build Emotional Literacy”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date],