Family Self-Care and Emotional Vocabulary

By Bryan B. RSS Wed, May 27, 2020

This is the 5th in an ongoing series of self-care blog-posts. I’m not a professional healthcare worker. I’m simply someone that practices self-care in his daily life and for whom self-care is an important element. If you need professional help, please get the help you need. Below are some ways of getting help. I’ve gotten help before, and it made a difference.

In the last two posts, I have suggested a family dance party as a family exercise and a blanket fort as a prompt to discuss changes in our public / private space. My process for creating these posts is to take a proven self-care technique and combine it with activities that children and youth enjoy. For today's post, we want to talk about increasing our emotional vocabulary.

Before we go there, please take a moment to check-in with yourself. How are you doing today? If we want to take care of ourselves, let's start by looking at ourselves. If you would like some help doing a self-check-in you can find information from our previous blog posts and video.

It is easy to simplify our emotions. We often describe our emotions as simply good or bad. However, studies show that being able to identify specific emotions helps us avoid negative behaviors. To specify the emotions we are feeling, we need the vocabulary to capture those emotions. So, we can help improve our family’s self-care by increasing their emotional vocabulary.

Here are some suggestions for helping to increase your family’s emotional vocabulary.

For young children...

  • Make faces with your child. Use an emotion wheel and pick an emotion. Describe it and take turns making faces to match the emotion.
  • Use the emotion wheel and make an emotion of the day. Post the day’s emotion with a description on the refrigerator (or some other highly trafficked location). Read the emotion and definition with your children.
  • Make a simplified emotion chart (Individual boxes for 8-10 emotions). Put it on the refrigerator. Let each of your children pick a magnet to represent them. Have them place their magnet on how they are feeling each day.

For elementary school-aged children...

  • Try playing "The 3 Marker Challenge" with your kids. Get a bunch of markers (or crayons / colored pencils / colored pens), the emotion wheel, and some paper. Have each participant close their eyes and pick 3 markers. Have one person close their eyes again and put their finger on the emotion wheel. Every contestant has 2 minutes to draw a picture of the emotion picked with their 3 picked markers.
  • Use the emotion of the day as a prompt for other activities. Do the emotion of the day suggestion above. If your child tells you that they are bored, ask them to write a story, sing a song, draw a picture, read a story, etc. about the emotion of the day.
  • Have your children record their emotional check-ins. Do the magnet check-in above, but ask your child to record their feelings.

For pre-teens / tweens...

  • Try playing charades or Pictionary with emotion words.
  • Consider 30-day challenges that revolve around their interests. Pick a different emotion for each day of the month. Then challenge them to do something each day related to the emotion for that day. For example, if they enjoy music, challenge them to find a song that expresses the emotion of the day. This can be done with a vast range of interests. If they like sports (or a team), ask for a sports story involving the emotion. If they like art, ask for a drawing. If they like internet pop culture, ask for a meme or gif that expresses the emotion of the day.
  • Encourage them to journal, blog, or vlog.

For teenagers...

  • I suggest approaching teaching emotional vocabulary to teenagers like you would approach it for adults. Teenagers are developing a sense of autonomy. One of the first things that's completely under their control is information about their emotions. Your inquiries into their emotions are sometimes perceived as a threat to their autonomy. By removing the appearance of a threat, you increase the likelihood that they will engage you in this endeavor.
  • If they are up for an academic challenge, encourage them to take a free online college psychology course. [Link to free online courses]
  • When they are in a mood to help, ask them to help their younger siblings learn emotional vocabulary.
  • A version of the pre-teen 30-day challenge may work with teens. However, I would not focus exclusively on emotions, that is probably too heavy-handed. Depending upon your teen, you might want to add incentives.

Tips for doing these activities:

  • Participate whenever possible. If you challenge your children to do something, take the challenge yourself. This can be an opportunity to bond. Plus, your participation can make the difference between the challenge seeming like a school assignment and seeming like play.
  • Be flexible. When doing the 30-day challenges or words of the day, don’t sweat missing a few days here or there. Getting your family to participate for 20 days over 2 months is better than 15 straight days. The goal here is to increase your family’s emotional intelligence and not to "win" a challenge.
  • Use your expanded vocabulary. As a parent and caregiver, you are the primary source of your children's vocabulary. The more emotion words you use, the more emotion words your children will learn.

If you are struggling, please get help. Below is a list of groups that can offer that help.

  • For thoughts of suicide: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of 161 crisis centers that provides a 24/7, toll-free hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
    Phone: 1-800-273-8255
  • For mental health issues: National Alliance of Mental Illness NAMI Philadelphia, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, provides information and support to people with mental illness, their families, caregivers, and friends. All services are free.
    Phone: 267-687-4381
  • For drug and substance abuse: National Drug Information Treatment and Referral Hotline has 24/7 information, support, treatment options, and referrals to local rehab centers for any drug or alcohol problem.
    Phone: 800-662-HELP (4357)

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