Why Labeling Feelings is So Important: Beyond Mad, Sad & Glad

Helping kids put their feelings into words (affect labeling) can help them better navigate strong, negative emotional experiences. We tend to "keep it simple" when talking about feelings with young children and may often stick to the basics, such as mad, glad and sad. That is all well and good. Once our children have mastered that, we can move on to a bigger variety of emotionally descriptive words. We can increase our child's understanding of a bigger expanse of feelings by broadening the terms we use.

Stumped about what feeling words to use beyond the three aforementioned? Try some of these on for size...

Brave Cheerful Worried Joyful Frightened Calm Excited Confused Frustrated Curious Friendly Shy Ignored Lonely Interested Proud Embarrassed Jealous Angry Bored Surprised Silly Uncomfortable Stubborn Safe Relieved Peaceful Overwhelmed Loving Cranky

Why it Matters:

We've long thought that naming our feelings could help us manage negative emotional states, but we weren't quite sure how exactly this worked. Brain imaging in the past demonstrated a possible neural pathway for this process, but a definitive conclusion could not be made. By using a functional magnetic resonance imaging study, scientists were able to look a bit deeper. They found that affect labeling (naming emotions)  reduced the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions {the emotional seat of the brain, if you will} to negative emotional images. 

Here's what the science says:

"... affect labeling produced increased activity in a single brain region, (the) right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Finally, RVLPFC and amygdala activity during affect labeling were inversely correlated, a relationship that was mediated by activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These results suggest that affect labeling may diminish emotional reactivity along a pathway from RVLPFC to MPFC to the amygdala." (Lieberman et al., 2007, p. 241).

Here's What it Means to Us: The Brain's Braking System

The activity that takes place in the RVLPFC when one labels an emotion acts as a "braking" system for the brain. It slows down the reaction of the limbic system (emotional seat) of the brain. We can literally help kids start "putting on the brakes" to emotional reactions by helping them learn to label feelings. Identifying feelings one of the first parts of social-emotional literacy.

What's Next?

Emotional labeling is just the first step. Once the feeling is identified, we need to help kids acquire coping skills to manage the feeling. If you're looking for help to in teaching said skills, we've a whole host of instant download products that can assist you in this endeavor. Check it all out HERE.

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x

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Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD, is  the founder of Kidlutions and co-author of BLOOM: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids, co-creator of BLOOM Brainsmarts, and creator of The Joyful Parent. She is the author of numerous workbooks and resources to help from the preschool through the teen years. 

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