The Feelings Wheel For Kids: A Genius Tool To Build Self-Awareness And Resilience
Updated: Apr 8
The Zentered Kids Feelings Wheel is one of our most popular resources. Why? Because connecting feelings with thoughts (aka naming feelings) promotes resilience.
Naming feelings reduces their intensity. And allows the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking to stay involved. This provides an instant boost to resilience – our ability to adapt and evolve. Check out our blog post Why Naming Feelings Is So Important for more on this.
Help Kids Grow Their Feelings Vocabulary
When kids are young, we tend to use simple words to describe emotions (happy, sad, mad). And this is good. But as they mature, kids need a larger feelings vocabulary. Without it, they are unable to communicate emotions that become more complex as they age.
Using a Feelings Wheel, kids can learn to recognize and communicate their feelings. As they grow. The more specific they are about their feelings, the better they understand themselves. And the better understood they are by others.
A Short History Of Feelings Wheels
Any modern Feelings Wheel should be informed by those that have come before.
It all started with psychologist Robert Plutchik’s Wheel Of Emotions. Well, it’s actually an intricate cone that folds outward. It’s based around 8 core emotions arranged in opposite pairs, by intensity and in combinations.
Psychotherapist Dr. Gloria Willcox’s Feelings Wheel is likely the most familiar. She created it to help her clients verbalize their emotions. Her wheel has 7 core emotions surrounded by secondary feelings in the outer circle.
Educator Kaitlin Robb designed an elaborate version of Willcox's wheel. Her goal was to help students express themselves in their writing. Referred to as the vocabulary wheel, it’s like a thesaurus of feelings.
From these original 3 many more have developed. Including ours.
What Make Our Feelings Wheels So Special?
Our wheel is an adaptation of Gloria Willcox’s version from back in 1982. We merged it with current finding from neuroscience and colour psychology.
The Zentered Kids Feelings Wheel is formed around the 4 basic feelings of happy, sad, scared and mad. Social-emotional research has identified these as the biologically-based feelings from which others develop.
Next, we added 20 related but more complex combinations of the 4 basic feelings. These are some of the many that develop as we grow and mature. The 20 we chose are those most likely for kids to recognize early on. They include: excited, calm, proud, focused, loving, tired, hurt, lonely, bored, sorry, embarrassed, surprised, worried, confused, anxious, mad, frustrated, jealous, disgusted, furious and overwhelmed.
The colour version of our wheel draws from the evolving study of colour psychology. According to colour theory, most of us have similar emotional associations to colours. Colours in the blue spectrum are cool (blue, green, purple). Cool colours generally evoke emotions from calm (green) to indifferent to sad (blue). Colours in the red range of the spectrum are warm (red, orange, yellow). Warm colours generally evoke emotions from comfort to worry (yellow) and anger (red).
The black-and-white version of our wheel allows kids to colour in the feelings as they experience them. Or adults can choose colours based on their preferences.
How To Use The Feelings Wheel
There are lots of ways to use the Feelings Wheel. Here are some of my favourite ideas:
Get to know the basics – happy, sad, scared, mad (inner wheel)
How does mad look and feel?
What colour is it for you?
How does feeling mad feel for you - scary? bad?
What do you think about feeling mad - is it okay to feel mad?
When do you feel mad?
What helps you when you feel mad?
Compare a basic feeling with a related complex feeling (inner to outer wheel in the same section)
How are happy and calm similar?
How are they different?
Compare a complex feeling with related complex feeling (2 from the outer wheel in the same section)
How are anxious and worried alike and not?
When a feeling starts to arise, look at the wheel (inner to outer of whole wheel)
Begin with the inner circle and move outward to find the closest match. Or matches. Maybe only happy. Maybe happy with a little bit of worry. With practice kids will notice they often have more than one feelings at once.
Sometimes it can be helpful to use the Feelings Wheel in reverse (outer to inner of whole wheel)
Start with the outer circle and work in.
Use the Feelings Wheel to talk about the highs and lows of the day (random)
And everything between. What were all the feelings felt. This morning I felt mostly tired … and then ...
Move Beyond The Feelings Wheel
Imagine the basic emotions as a 4 pack of crayons. Nice, useful, but limited. The complex emotions add 20 more crayons to the pack. So much more nuance. Keep adding. Use our Blank Feelings Wheel after kids are comfortable with the original. With it, they can add to their expanding feelings vocabulary. This is where Kaitlin Robb’s version can provide a thesaurus of feelings to choose from.
It may seem difficult at first. But expressing and regulating emotions begins with learning to notice and name them. When their feelings vocabulary evolves with them, kids can be more specific about how they feel. And respond to and take care of their emotions more accurately.