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October 01, 2016

Your daughter comes home in tears. She can barely choke out words to describe the mean things some girls said to her on the school bus. You listen to her story and try to comfort her. If you’re really skilled, you’ll offer her attunement (Are You Okay? March 2014).

After a couple months practicing for his first driver’s license, your son fails the behind-the-wheel test at the motor vehicle department. On the way home, you sense his distress as he complains about the unfair examiner and how he deserved to pass. You try to comfort him.

Recent research suggests that there’s something else — something enormously helpful — that you can do that may reduce the intensity and duration of a child’s distress: coach your kids to identify and name the specific emotions they’re feeling during moments of emotional pain.

Studies have found that when people identify and specifically name their emotions, they are “less likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations.”1 That’s because when we use precise labels for our feelings, we understand more about what’s happening to us emotionally, which then can lead to identifying a smart (and healthy) course of action. Clearly labeled emotions become easier to regulate (“I’m sad” rather than “I feel bad,” or “I’m disappointed” rather than “I’m really bummed out”). Once we know the feeling we’re dealing with, we can tailor our response to it rather than just fall back on the customary habits we rely on in order to feel better (especially unhealthy habits like erupting into anger, turning to alcohol, bottling up the pain, bingeing on food, etc.)

People skilled at naming their feelings have been found to drink 40% less alcohol when stressed,2 and are 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate with verbal or physical aggression against someone who has hurt them.3 Impressive evidence exists that teaching school-aged children to expand their understanding and use of precise emotion words improves both their social behavior as well as their academic performance.4

If we’re going to teach our kids to speak the language of emotions, we’re going to need to speak the language ourselves. It doesn’t require a huge lexicon; angry, sad, hurt, afraid, upset, disappointed, discouraged, guilty, and ashamed are the basics. Incorporate those words into your vocabulary, and when your kids are distressed, coach them to do the same.

References & Citations
  1. Kashdan, T.B., L.F. Barrett, P.E., McKnight. “Unpacking emotion differentiation: transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving emotion differentiation.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2015 vol. 24 no. 1, pp.10-16. doi: 10.1177/0963721414550708.
  2. Kashdan, T. B., P. Ferssizidis, R.L. Collins, & M. Muraven. “Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers.” Psychological Science, 21, 2010. 1341–1347.
  3. Pond, R. S., T.B. Kashdan, C.N. Dewall, A.A. Savostyanova, N.M. Lambert, & F.D. Fincham. “Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.” Emotion, 12, 2012. 326–337.
  4. Brackett, M. A., S.E. Rivers, M.R. Reyes, & P. Salovey. “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum.” Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 2012, 218–224.