Labeling Emotions in Young Children

The ability to label emotions is a developmental skill that is not present at birth—it must be learned through patience and with the support of a parent or guardian.

By Anne E. Mead, Ed. D.

The ability to label emotions is a developmental skill that is not present at birth—it must be learned through patience and with the support of a parent or guardian. There is wide variation in children’s developmental capacity to learn new things, such as fine and gross motor skills, forms of play and reading and, especially, social-emotional growth. Some children’s ability to identify, understand, and label their emotions develops at a slower rate than others. Three variables can underlie a child’s ability to label emotions: (1) the child’s temperament and developmental status (2) parental socialization and environmental support, and (3) teacher and childcare provider emphasis on emotional literacy. Indeed, differences in the way adults talk to and teach children about feelings and problem solving are related to children’s abilities to label emotions ( There are many activities that families can do to help children develop their social-emotional abilities. These activities include reading to help children identify how a character in a book is feeling, talking about disputes among siblings and their feelings, and handling disputes with friends as the child becomes older. 

Children who have a strong foundation in emotional literacy are healthier, have more friends, are less impulsive, remain more focused and demonstrate greater academic achievement. Recognizing children’s skills and praising them helps to development more engaging behaviors and deepening the knowledge of effective skill levels. Assisting children in identifying their feelings by using words is of critical importance in a child’s emotional development because it makes it possible for children to better understand their emotional experiences and to recognize feelings in others. The ability to name feelings allows children to discuss and reflect with others about their personal experiences of the world. 

The larger the emotional vocabulary a child possesses, the finer the discriminations that can be made among feelings and the better children can communicate with others about their emotions and possible problems. Having these skills help to build friendships based on empathy. While several underlying processes contribute to a child’s ability to understand and regulate emotions, parents and caregivers can make a meaningful difference by emphasizing emotions throughout daily routines. 

Here are the items you can do at home to develop your child’s skills. Label your own feelings throughout the day in front of children. Observe children and label their feelings as they experience them. Talk about feelings displayed by characters in children’s books, on television or in videos. Allow children to feel a range of emotions, but teach them healthy ways to express them. Play games and sing songs involving feelings, such as “If you’re happy and you know it.” Reinforce children’s efforts to express their feelings in healthy ways. These ideas were developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at

Please remember that kindergarten registration is ongoing for September, 2021. Please register your child at 

Anne E. Mead, Ed. D., is the administrator for the Early Childhood Education and Extended Learning Programs of the Danbury Public Schools. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact her at 203-830-6508 or meadan@danbury.k12.