One night not long ago, I called up the stairs to remind my 10-year-old daughter to practice piano.
“Hiss,” she said as she came down.
“What’s the emotion behind that ‘hiss’?” I asked.
She paused to think. “Exasperated with a hint of anger but not enough to override my good-naturedly-ness.” And then she went off to practice.
In my work as a parent educator, I often run workshops on how to help kids build emotional literacy. And one concept that really resonates with caregivers is “emotional granularity.” Coined by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of “How Emotions are Made,” emotional granularity is the ability to name what we are feeling with a high degree of precision and specificity. Are you enraged or annoyed? Ecstatic or content? Jealous or lonely?
According to Barrett’s research, “people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings — those ‘50 shades of feeling crappy’ — were 30 percent more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.”
Put simply, when we can find the right words to label our emotions, we are better equipped to make good choices.
As a mom, I remember the first time I realized the power of helping kids name their feelings. My daughter was two when we brought her baby brother home from the hospital. An emergency C-section meant I had been away from her longer than we’d anticipated. For two days, she barely acknowledged me. On day three, she erupted into an inconsolable tantrum. Once she wore herself out, I asked, “Are you mad at mommy?” No answer. “Do you feel sad?” No answer.
It’s helpful to think of “mad” as a tip-of-the-iceberg emotion. With a little empathy and curiosity, you might discover worry, anxiety or confusion below the surface.
And then my husband asked, “Do you feel scared?” At that she nodded, began to cry gently and snuggled beside me for comfort. Her life had been upended, and we had offered her the balm of the right word to express that.
As parents, we need emotional granularity most when it comes to anger: our children’s and our own. It’s helpful to think of “mad” as a tip-of-the-iceberg emotion. With a little empathy and curiosity, you might discover worry, anxiety or confusion below the surface. When your middle schooler slams the door, it’s tempting to reprimand their disrespectful behavior or to brush it off as a “bad mood.” But here’s one thing I’ve learned through years of teaching tweens and teens: Angry outbursts are signal flares. That slam might indicate a conflict with a friend, a bad quiz grade, an embarrassing moment on the bus, worry about soccer tryouts, the need for a snack or a lack of sleep. As a seventh grader told me, “I wish my parents would remember that when I get mad at them, it’s almost always because I’m stressed about something else.”
My go-to emotions expert is Susan David, a Harvard psychologist and author of “Emotional Agility.” She told me that one of our most important jobs as parents is “helping your child show up to all emotions — not this idea that some emotions are good and some are bad, but that emotions just are.”
David describes emotions as “data, not directions.” As she told me, “Sometimes our emotions are signposts that show us what we care about.” For example, nerves before play tryouts might signal to a teen that they care about drama or perhaps that they are excited to be part of a group activity. That’s good information. It motivates them to do their best, but it also gives clues about what to do next if they aren’t chosen to be part of the cast. If the nerves point to their interest in drama, what other performance opportunities could they pursue? If they are more interested in a group activity, what clubs might fill that need?
When we can take the judgment out of emotions, David says, “we can start to help kids create space between their feeling and their response to that feeling.”
Nonjudgmental is the arena where character is developed: when you can recognize your fear or frustration and still make a choice that aligns with your values. We develop courage and confidence when we can say, “I own my emotions; my emotions don’t own me.”
This work begins with helping young kids label their emotions at a very early age.
One morning in April, I visited several preschool classrooms to read my picture book “You Have Feelings All the Time,” a book I wrote to help young kids develop an emotional vocabulary. When I ask the three- and four-year-olds to show me “what happy looks like,” their faces lit up with smiles. When I asked them to show me “what sad looks like,” they puckered out their lips and drooped their shoulders. They clenched their fists for “mad” and hugged their chests or covered their eyes for scared. When it came to these four basic emotions, these kids were pros.
Later that same day, I sat with a class of third graders and told them about this preschool experience. “You are older, so I bet you can name more than four emotions,” I told them. They began to brainstorm words that fell under the umbrellas of happy, sad, mad and scared.
“Mad” generated the most synonyms: frustrated, annoyed, irritated, angry, enraged, bothered, upset. When we moved to “scared,” the kids had questions:
“What about stressed and anxious? Do those mean the same thing?”
“Terrified is definitely different than worried — but I think they both go under ‘scared,’ right?”
“Where does ‘surprised’ fit? Sometimes surprises are happy and sometimes they are scary. Can we put it in both places?”
“What about ‘confused’? It can feel stressful when you don’t know what to do. But it can also be frustrating.”
They grew thoughtful when we moved to sad. The first boy I called on offered this word: “grief.” “That’s what you feel when you lose something you really love,” he said.
What if you lose something less important, I asked, like a soccer game? “That’s more like ‘disappointed,’” another student responded.
“Happy” posed a bit of a challenge. They agreed it was a good feeling, but what were the gradations of this emotion?
“Satisfied,” said one student.
“Peaceful,” said another.
“What about excited?” asked a third. “I’m excited my birthday is next week. That’s a happy feeling.”
Now things were getting interesting. Exciting is a high-energy — or high-arousal — emotion. Peaceful is a calmer biological state. We interpret both as types of happiness, but they could not look more different in our nervous system.
We develop courage and confidence when we can say, “I own my emotions; my emotions don’t own me.”
A few days later, I met with a group of high school seniors to talk about the science of emotion, and I brought up this question of excitement vs. peacefulness. Our bodies experience excitement and anxiety in nearly identical ways: Both are states of arousal, I explained. Our hearts race and a surge of cortisol gets us ready to act. Similarly, feeling calm and feeling blue are similar, low-arousal states.
So what’s the difference between these emotions? If naming emotions is powerful and instructive, how do we decide which name we apply to internal states?
A student raised her hand, “I guess it depends on the context. What’s happening around us that prompts that rush of emotion?”
She was right. Our brain, in an effort to keep us safe, constantly assesses our surroundings and makes predictions based on past experiences. So the difference between excited and scared is a matter of interpretation.
Think about it like this: Two kids are getting ready to go on stage. Both have a fluttering stomach. The one who had success last time they were on stage — who experienced applause — interprets that feeling as excitement.
But what about the child who has never stood in front of an audience? Or the one who froze up the last time they were on stage? They will likely interpret their emotional symptoms as anxiety.
This matters because our instinctive reaction to anxiety is avoidance. Excitement, in contrast, pushes us in the other direction — we want to run toward an opportunity.
“Your body is constantly giving you information,” I explained to them. “Pay attention to what you feel, but remember that while you may not be able to control your emotional reaction to a situation, you can choose your response.”
To help with this, I offered them another tool I learned from Susan David. Instead of saying, “I am mad” or “I am stressed,” try saying, “I notice that I’m feeling sad right now.” That simple language shift prompts reflection: “I notice that I’m feeling agitated. I wonder why?”
A few days later, I ran into one of these same high school seniors. “I am super stressed about college decisions!” she began. But then she stopped herself: “Scratch that. I notice that I feel stressed whenever I think about what college to commit to.”
“Cool. Tell me more about what you are noticing,” I said.
That began a different kind of conversation — not so much about anxious feelings, but about her values, her vision for the future and competing priorities. “You know,” she concluded, “when I think about this one college, I don’t have that same stressful feeling. It’s not quite as ‘prestigious’ as some of the others, but it has a solid program for the field I want, and the students I met were really kind. I’m going to sit with this some more.”
In that space she’s creating between the emotion she named and the decision she will make, I have full confidence in her capacity to choose thoughtfully. And that’s what we want for our kids, for ourselves, for our world — to use emotions as companions on our journey toward our better selves.
Deborah Farmer Kris is a parenting columnist for PBS KIDS FOR PARENTS, an education journalist and founder of Parenthood365.