Why Naming Feelings Is So Important: Happy, Sad, Scared, Mad And Beyond
Updated: Mar 21
When kids learn to put their feelings into words, they can better manage strong emotional states. This sounds like a big promise, but it’s actually supported by brain research!
Teaching kids how to put their feelings into words doesn’t have to be hard or tedious either. With thoughtfully designed materials (like Feelings Cards) and games it can even be fun.
But, let’s start with the research and what happens in the brain when we name our feelings.
In The Brain
How Naming Feelings Works From The Inside Out
Brain-scan results show that naming feelings decreases activity in the brain’s emotional centres. The following is a super simplified summary of this process. You’re welcome.
The amygdala lives in the brain’s emotional centre. One of its jobs is to act like a smoke detector, sounding an alarm when emotions get strong. Research shows that labelling feelings leads to reduced activation in the amygdala. This reduced activation allows the frontal lobe (our reasoning and thinking centre) to remain engaged and able to help us.
Emotions are surges of energy within us. If we acknowledge them as they happen, they become less powerful.
Naming a feeling gives us some space as an emotion (like anger) rises up. We can notice our body and mind becoming angry and name the emotion as we’re having it. This calms our emotional centre and allows our thinking centre to help us decide how to respond, rather than react.
Our hippocampus stores learning and memories. It's where the brain stores things like the feelings we know and the strategies we've learned to cope with them. We want this to be large and growing!
Let’s DO It!
Feelings Cards And Games For A Calm Amygdala
We want kids to develop a large vocabulary of feelings. Feelings Cards are a great tool. But not just any Feelings Cards. Here are some things to look for:
Characteristics Of A Great Set Of Feelings Cards
Start with the basics:
Current research in social-emotional development identifies 4 basic building-block feelings. They are: Happy, Sad, Scared and Mad. These feelings should be included as the core 4 of any deck.
With mastery, add on:
From the 4 basics there are many related but more complex feelings. Ideally, kids become familiar with them as they grow and mature. In a great deck, each complex feeling relates to one basic feeling. For example, Calm, Focused, Loving, Excited and Proud are all members of the Happy family.
Show how feelings are related. This is so helpful for kids as they build their feelings vocabulary. Use a Wheel, for example:
Use colour. Bonus points if the colours are chosen with care. The feelings evoked by colours aren’t universal. But, according to colour psychology, most of us have similar emotional associations. Colours in the red range of the colour spectrum are warm (red, orange, yellow). Warm colours generally evoke emotions from comfort to worry (yellow) to anger (red). Colours in the blue spectrum are cool (blue, green, purple). Cool colours generally evoke emotions from calm (green) to indifferent to sad (blue).
Now let’s turn to the Feelings Cards themselves...
Anatomy Of An Awesome Feeling Card
Facial expressions are essential to effective communication. The 43 muscles of the face have distinct capacities to convey distinct messages. With more honesty than words. Feeling faces should show distinct eyebrows, eyes, mouths and noses to clearly communicate emotions.
Beyond The Face:
Studies show that about 55 percent of our communication comes from our body language! If body language and words disagree, we tend to instinctively trust body language. Since feelings are felt, expressed and seen in our faces AND in our bodies, a feeling face isn’t enough. A great card shows faces PLUS shoulders, torsos, arms and hands.
Girls do feel mad and boys do feel loving. Age and skin colour don’t matter either. The important message is: We ALL have these feelings and they are ALL okay. Great cards depict a range of kids experiencing a range of emotions.
Use colour psychology (as above) on the Feelings Cards themselves. Characters depicting emotions from comfort to worry wearing warm colours. Characters depicting emotions from calm to indifferent to sad wearing cool colours.
Now For Some Fun And Games
A Few To Get You Started
Once you’ve found the perfect cards, there are lots of ways to use them with kids. When they’re having fun while learning about feelings the learning goes deeper. And, their relationship with all feelings becomes friendly, accepting. No feeling denied, to go underground and create dis-ease.
Under The "B" ... Bingo!
How about some Charades
Pick a card and act it out for others to guess the feeling.
or Reverse Charades
Pick a card. Describe the feeling while others embody it. Tell them how their face, torso and hands look, using as much detail as you can. Then have them guess the emotion they are embodying.
It All Begins With Naming
Brain research is clear. Naming feelings leads to being able to respond to them in healthy ways. Once the feeling is named, kids need coping skills to manage the feeling. But it all begins with a large vocabulary of feelings and comfort with our changing emotions.