Ever find yourself asking children these questions:
“Why’d you do that?”
“What are you feeling?”
And the most common answer to these questions, one you’ve probably heard a million times, is…drum roll please…
“I don’t know.”
Are you getting too many frustrating “I don’t knows” from your growing person when trying to talk about emotional experiences?
Creating a mutually shared emotional language is an important step to guiding children through big emotions.
What is an emotional language?
It’s the words we use to talk about our inner emotional experience. All the feeling words, like anger, sadness, anger, and joy, are part of our emotional language.
An emotional language helps children to more easily discuss their emotional experience with you. When they have the words to clearly describe their internal experience, you’ll hear a lot fewer, “I don’t knows.” You’ll create stronger communication and connection with them.
Building an emotional language starts by learning the basic feeling words and knowing when you’re in those emotional states.
A powerful and often overlooked next step is creating a personalized emotional language exclusive to you and your growing people.
One of my kids came to my office to discuss his feelings about performing in the school play. He told me he was nervouscited (nervous + excited), which I loved. Nervouscited fit his internal experience perfectly and was much easier to say than, “I feel excited about performing and I feel nervous about it, too.”
He learned the word from Pinkie Pie on My Little Pony. If you or your kids would like to hear Pinkie Pie explain nervouscited, click below to watch a 10 second clip.
(If you or your child are sensitive to noise, check to make sure your volume is lowered. Pinkie Pie’s voice is high pitched.)
An emotional language creates a foundation and framework that’s the same for all members of your family, classroom or community, which creates a sense of safety and belonging, and communicates that all emotions are okay.
It also creates a short-cut or code for discussing more complex topics in a way that all members of the group understand clearly.
One mom shared with me that she created the “dinosaur voice.” She uses this phrase to indicate when her child is using an inappropriate voice tone. It’s helping them to build awareness and learn to regulate their voice tone in a playful way. She doesn’t have to say, “You’re using an inappropriate voice tone.” She can simply say, “Dinosaur Voice” and her child knows what’s expected.
Co-creating an emotional language can also help you create more connection with your growing person. It creates a deeper shared understanding of a child’s inner experience.
Another one of my little friends struggled with staying calm and emotionally regulated when they made mistakes.
To work through this, we were playing with puppets and the puppets were making mistakes. After each puppet messed up, they acted as if their hand was a claw machine, grabbed the puppet by the leg and slowly lowered it head first into a basket, saying, “You go in the shame bucket.”
While it was so hard to hear that they felt shameful, as Brene Brown shares, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.”
With their creation of the shame bucket, we now had words to explore their inner experience when they made mistakes. They were able to draw the shame bucket and tell me how it felt to be inside it. I understood their experience on a deeper level which led to more sharing, less shame and a sense of emotional safety.
How can you build an emotional language with your growing people?
One way is to invite them to draw and name characters for their big emotions.
A second way is to ask them to tell stories about their emotional experiences and listen for any words you can use to build their emotional language.
Here’s a script I use with kids to encourage storytelling:
- Can you tell me the story of what happened when insert experience?
- Tell me how it all started.
- What happened next?
- How did it all end? What ended the experience?
Creating an emotional language is a foundational step on the emotion guide journey, next we’ll be talking about how to get off the Here-We-Go-Again Cycle.
We explore creating an emotional language more in depth in our community, the Growing Up Confident Collective.