the feelings vocabulary

By Steven Tobias, Psy.D.

This article is based on the information and techniques presented in Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child By Maurice Elias, Steven Tobias, and Brian Friedlander.

One of the most important skills in emotional literacy is the ability to correctly perceive feelings, both in oneself others. If you misperceive feelings in yourself, it will cause you to react in a way that will likely not get you what you really want. For example, many people confuse frustration and anger. Frustration means that something is hard to accomplish. Anger usually means that someone is trying to hurt you (even yourself, as in when you berate yourself for doing something wrong).

What do you do when you are frustrated?

Take a break, ask for help, keep trying.

What do you do when you are angry?

Yell or withdraw.

If a child is working on difficult homework and they label themselves as angry, they will likely act out or quit. If they can label themselves as frustrated, they will more likely cope more appropriately and complete the homework.

If you misperceive feelings in others, it also can lead to aversive and unintended consequences.

Some children have what is called a "hostile attribution bias." All this means is that when confronted with neutral social stimuli, the child perceives it as aggression towards them. This primes them to respond in kind.

Obviously, this becomes self-reinforcing because if the child responds aggressively, then the other person will also become aggressive which then confirms the perception (or rather what was initially a misperception) that the other was really provoking them.

In order to identify feelings in yourself, you first have to have words for those feelings, a feelings vocabulary. Many children are either okay or mad and miss all the subtle gradations of feelings in-between because they do not have labels for those feelings.

Therefore, parents and educators have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to teach these words and their emotional definitions.

This can be done in several ways. One way is to paraphrase back to children what they are saying to you but in an appropriate way. For example, you might ask a child how he feelings when his sister will not include him in her play and he replies, "She’s such an idiot. I hate her."

The parent can then paraphrase this back as; "It sounds like your feelings were really hurt and that you are very angry with your sister."

If you address the way the child expressed their feeling at this time, the communication will stop. If you ignore how the child expressed himself but indicated understanding of the underlying feeling, you not only reinforced the child for talking to you but also modeled an appropriate way to express himself and helped him label the feeling more correctly.

Another way to help children learn to identify feelings is to talk about them at the dinner table.

If the family talks sports, children will learn that this is important to you and they will learn about sports. If the family talks feelings, children will learn that these are important and will learn about different feelings.

It should be noted that some children learn to identify and express feelings more easily than others do. Some children have more difficulty in this area and require more deliberate time and instruction.

Children can learn about feelings when watching television, sitting on a bench in the mall, or when reading.

Point out the feelings that you see around you and talk about them. Talk about how the characters on TV or in the book are feeling and why.

Look at people you see and try to guess how they are feeling. Another technique for teaching how to identify feelings is to watch if people are being their "BEST." This is an acronym for:

B — Body language

E — Eye contact

S — what is Said

T — Tone of voice

By attending to each of these, one can usually figure out how the person is feeling. Feelings are complex and communicated in many ways. We often have to be detectives in order to understand how people are feeling.

The feeling might be expressed more in the Body language or the Tone of voice rather than in the specific words used. In a sense, "feelings" are what it is all about.

If someone asks you how you are feeling and you can truly answer, "Good," then you are probably doing better than most. But the first step in feeling good is to be aware of your feelings and all the wondrous gradations and variations thereof.


Psychological Enterprises, Inc. is a company devoted to the development of innovative materials and technologies which promote children's social and affective development. The company publishes educational currucula for use in schools as well as interactive software to facilitate children's social problem solving skills. In addition, the company conducts workshops, consultation, and parent training.

The principle officers of the company have authored several books, including Social Problem Solving: Interventions in the Schools, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child, and Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers: Parenting with Love, Laughter, and Limits.

Psychological Enterprises, Inc.
145 Washington Street
New Jersey 07960

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There is no intellectual clarity to such issues even now. I missed the lilacs of the land that shaped me. I missed my people. I missed an emotional expression I innately understood. The memory of flowering chestnut trees can still unwind my heart. And then there was the statue of that towering angel, my avenger, his cloudy wings ever-unfurling in the courtyard by my room.

It is impossible to wring sense from such mysteries ...

I was too openly feeling to make an effective follower, leader or bully, and as a consequence, kept somewhat to myself. I often asked to be alone. My father understood this need if only because he was much the same in his desires and knew the liberty such privacy conferred. He ensured that I felt singularly loved.

- from The Pure Weight of the Heart, by Antonella Gambotto-Burke

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