Emotional Literacy is a concept that has been talked about in the academic world for years and is now slowly beginning to make its way into mainstream society. But what is emotional literacy? Emotional Literacy is one’s ability to understand their own emotions, have the ability to regulate those emotions in a healthy and appropriate way; as well as the ability to recognize and empathise with the emotions of others.

Why is Emotional Literacy Important?

The ability to understand one’s own emotions is critical for all individuals. The ability to recognize our own emotions is the first step in being able to understand how to regulate those emotions and make ourselves feel better when needed. Additionally, if we are unable to recognize emotions in ourselves, it is unlikely that we will be able to identify emotions in others. This can create ongoing interpersonal conflict and social issues. There has also been research that has shown that emotional literacy is linked to positive socialization and self-esteem. Having a strong foundation of emotional understanding has ongoing positive effects throughout our lives.

Teaching and Promoting Emotional Literacy

There are many ways to teach and promote emotional literacy to children. Here are three basic methods that you can use to start to develop and promote emotional literacy in your family.

1. Express Your Own Emotions

Parents tend to try and withhold their emotions from their children, especially when those feelings are unpleasant. However, showing your children your emotions and modeling how to handle those feelings, in a healthy and appropriate was, is a great way to teach your children. For example, if you are driving and are suddenly cut off by another car and become very upset, instead of honking or cursing, you can say “that made me mad now I’m going to take some deep breaths”. In this example you are naming the emotion you’re feeling; as well as, modeling an appropriate coping skill. As you continue to do so, over time, your child will be able to do the same with their emotions.

2. Label Children’s Feelings

Another helpful way to increase and promote emotional literacy in your child is to begin labeling their feelings from a young age. For example, if a toddler is clapping and smiling you can say- “you’re feeling so happy.” As the child gets older prompting them to name their emotions is also helpful. If a child is crying, you can ask what emotion they are feeling. They might answer that they aren’t sure, this would allow you the opportunity to name some feelings and allow the child to identify which is accurate. The more you able to label and externalize feelings the more the child will able to do so themselves later in life.

3. Play and Books

There are many games that can promote emotional literacy and can differ based on the age or developmental level of the child. One game that can be used with a wide age range is feelings charades. In this game, various emotions are written on slips of paper (basic emotions for smaller children, more complex for older). Each turn someone picks a paper slip and has to act out that feeling without speaking. This allows children to demonstrate their understanding of a feeling; as well as, learn the body language of other’s emotions. Another great resource, to assist in promoting emotional literacy, is books. There are many books for various ages and developmental levels. Books range from basic teachings of what emotions are, to how the manifest in the body, to how to handle those emotions. Some of my favorites are: A Whole Bunch of Feelings: What do They Mean?, Listening to My Body, and Breathe Like a Bear. These are just some of my favorites there are many more out there to choose from.

Remember when trying to increase your child’s emotional literacy: it takes time, it should be natural, and have fun with it.

Steiner, C. with Perry, P. (1997) Achieving Emotional Literacy. London: Bloomsbury.

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