Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand, name, and process feelings. Not just your own, but also the feelings expressed by others.

This deeply undervalued and unappreciated skill is a better indicator of intelligence and a better predictor of success than IQ. At least that’s what the latest research suggests.

So what is it and how can we help cultivate it in our children?

Appreciating the nuance

A big part of emotional literacy is understanding and embracing just how complex feelings can be. The English language has over 4,000 words that describe feelings.

Almost always, what a person is feeling at any given time is really a combination of more than one emotion.

For example, we may think of someone as angry when that’s really just an umbrella term covering emotions that may include frustration, emotional hurt, physical pain, anguish, fear, or even embarrassment.

The same is true of positive emotions. Happy is just an umbrella term that may include proud, excited, satisfied, and a number of other feelings.

A person who has emotional literacy understands the complexity and nuance of emotions.

Learning emotional literacy

No one is born simply knowing this stuff. It has to be learned.

We can instill it in our children. Start by reassuring them that feelings are normal. Help them put labels on their feelings as a way to describe them, but never as a way to judge certain feelings as “good” or “bad”.

Help them recognize the sources, or triggers, for various feelings. Simply knowing what caused you to feel a certain way is a big help to expressing that constructively.

Help them see how feelings change based on circumstances and environment. What each of us is feeling right now is not the same as what we felt an hour ago. Nor is it the same as what we’ll be feeling an hour from now.

These fluctuations are perfectly normal and healthy.

Putting emotional literacy to practical use

While there may be patterns to our general emotions and demeanor, we are not slaves to our feelings. Learning to understand and describe what we’re feeling takes away some of the power those feelings hold over us.

For a preschooler, this is a pretty big deal.

Gradually you will teach them — through understanding rather than punishment — that things like throwing a wailing tantrum over not getting a piece of candy is not a constructive way to express one’s feelings.

Children who learn to understand, accept, and regulate their emotions become far more resilient. They experience negative emotions less intensely and for shorter periods of time. They are also less prone to depression.

At the same time, their ability to embrace so-called positive emotions becomes stronger. They form closer friendships and even perform better academically.

Color with every crayon in the box

In the same way that a box of crayons has more colors in it than simply red, yellow, and blue, we as humans have a wide range of emotions too.

Use this analogy to help your child understand that there is more than one shade of green. There are also many kinds of happiness, or love, or irritation.

Giving your child a rich emotional vocabulary as a way to describe a wide array of emotions is key to helping them learn to manage their feelings.

Research has shown that the words we use to label something has a powerful impact on how we perceive that thing. Different people experiencing the very same trigger event, but using different words to describe their feelings toward it, had measurable differences in their bodies’ physiological reactions.

This fact can even be turned into a game that you play with your child. In books and magazines, find photos of people expressing strong emotions. Ask your child to label some of the things the person in the photo might be feeling.

You can even carry the game a step further and invent your own story about what happened to make the person feel the way they do. Maybe the woman in the yellow coat just got a promotion at work, or found a dollar in her pocket, or got to pet a kitten. The man in the green shirt may have bumped his toe on some furniture or spilled hot coffee on his new pants.

As your children get older and better at this, they will naturally add their own layers of complexity. Ask them what things the person in the photo might say, or what may happen next, or if there are other ways the person might express their feelings.

All of these things will help your child build a rich set of mental and emotional tools for expressing their own feelings.

Emotions in action

Kids respond strongly to behaviors that you model. Like it or not, they will observe how you act in various situations and take that as the way they should act as well.

So let your kids see you expressing a range of emotions. Perhaps you won’t want to stop and talk about it when you’re still feeling sad or angry, but at some point sit down with them to talk through your own emotions and how you handle them.

Like meditation, being accepting and mindful of your emotions and how to respond to them takes practice. It also brings peace of mind and a less turbulent experience of life.

This is a powerful skill to pass on to your children.

At The Pillars Christian Learning Center, our entire focus is on helping your children grow into the best adults they can possibly be. Call and arrange to stop by so you can see our approach in action.