How Do I Help My Child Identify and Express Emotions?

There has been plenty of research over the years trying to pin down a list of emotions. Most agree are all born with emotions, but there is no common consensus about which emotions we are born with verses which emotions we learn. Many studies conclude that almost everyone is capable of feeling six basic states of emotion: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. In a study done at UC Berkley, Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner used statistical methods to analyze reports of emotional states elicited by 2,185 emotionally evocative short videos with richly varying situational content. Dacher Keltner stated, “We found that 27 distinct dimensions, not six, were necessary to account for the way hundreds of people reliably reported feeling in response to each video.” The 27 emotions Keltner identified are: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation,  amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom,  calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise.

Feelings Flashcards

With no consensus on how what we are born with or how many emotions there are, how do you help your child identify and express their emotions?

Parents and other adults present a major role in modeling and teaching children to identify and express their emotions. Think about what you are modeling for your child. How do you identify and express your own feelings? How do others who care for your child identify and express their feelings? Children model what they see.  It is important for children to have emotions modeled and identified in healthy ways. By age one, children are able to become aware of emotions and be guided on how to regulate their emotions. By age two, they are able to learn skills of self regulated emotions. As children get older and experience more secondary emotions as they experience the world, they are able to understand what appropriate and inappropriate emotions are and how to manage them. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings and the feelings of others is the best way to increase the ability to identify, understand, and manage their feelings.


Here are some things that will help your child identify and express their emotions:

  1. Identify the feeling. Model healthy emotions and talk about them as you experience them, giving them a name. For example, “Good morning, I am so ‘HAPPY‘ you slept in your own bed.” or “I am so ‘SAD‘ you are not sharing your toys.” Children can gesture before they can speak, so teaching them American Sign Language (ASL) signs can help them better communicate their feelings. You many also want to have Feelings Flashcards printed off to help your child identify what they are feeling. When they are crying you could ask them if they are ‘SAD‘ or ‘HURT‘.
  2. Teach appropriate responses. Once again, it is about modeling appropriate behavior and talking about feelings. Avoid telling your child not to cry – rather ask them to express what happened that caused them to cry. “I see you are upset, what happened?” Use these opportunities to teach rather than scold. When your child has an inappropriate response, teach them to apologize and how to handle it in an appropriate manner in the future.
  3. Pay attention. Notice when your child is getting frustrated or overwhelmed. Help them recognize what is causing the emotion and allow them time to respond in an appropriate manner. Sometimes your child is tired, over stimulated, or overwhelmed.  Getting down on their level, hugging them, and talking about what is happening can help them learn to regulate their emotions. Other times they may just need connection and reassurance. Many experts highly recommend hugging your child and it does wonders to get them though a rough time.
  4. Practice and praise. Practice expressing emotions and praise your child when they talk about their feeling and express it appropriately. This reinforces that it is normal to have emotions. Throughout your day there are plenty of opportunities to practice emotions in a variety of settings, such as play dates, home, or at the store. You can even practice role playing with their favorite doll or stuffed animal. Reputation is key in identifying their emotions.

How you react to your child’s emotions greatly impacts how they will express their emotions as they grow and develop. When your child is younger and learning to identify and express their emotions, you may need to help them avoid distressing situations, or distract them when you can see them being triggered. As they get older you will need to help them identify how to express emotions in a socially appropriate manner. When children are taught their emotions are valid and how to express them appropriately they are less likely to struggle with self regulations.

Support Material

Signing Time Session 1 Volume 4: Family, Feeling, & Fun Video (Free with Subscription or $14.99)
Signing Time Session 1 Volume 4: Family, Feeling, & Fun Printable Flashcards (Free with Subscription or $4.99)

Baby Signing Time Volume 4: Let’s Be Friends Video (Free with Subscription or $14.99)
Baby Signing Time Volume 4: Let’s Be Friends Flashcards (Free with Subscription or $4.99)


Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients September 5, 2017 Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner
An age-by-age guide to helping kids manage emotions by Sanya Pelini
Helping Kids Recognize, Manage and Express Their Feelings
9 Ways To Teach Children About Feelings

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