Emotional language

How many words do you think you can give to one emotion? Well, that’s an interesting question isn’t it, because do we really know what ‘emotions’ are in the most simplest form?



  • Use a diary/paper/pen/notes on phone.   Write down how you are feeling.
  • If you find this hard, use pictures/take selfies of your family showing each expression? Use an emoji? Write down the word?  Draw a picture?
  • Maybe there’s a pattern?  But maybe you don’t know what word to use to describe how your feeling?

Language is incredible. It changes, it stays the same, it makes people happy and it hurts people. It can be present or absent and still make an impact. Language should never be underestimated.

From a psychoanalytic perspective (Otto Rank, 1924)– trauma/anxiety is the first emotional experience as a baby – being born. You can imagine being the baby when giving birth right? Pain? Stress? A new world? Light? Being yanked about? Pretty anxiety provoking. Bion also wrote that children are born into confusion and chaos which is unavoidable.


So how do we expect our babies and children to understand emotion if they initially experience chaos and anxiety?  How do we learn from a baby what emotions feel like and what they are called?  This is all dependent upon the world in which the child (that includes you) grows up in.  Was emotional language used around you as a child?  Was behaviour associated with emotion chastised?  Do you know how to properly label your own emotional state?

Well, something I find all the time with the young people and families I work with as a mental health nurse is that sometimes there are too many words. There are too many things being said.  Simplify!

There are quite a lot of different people who have written the list of emotions:


Some theories refer to these as ‘basic’ emotions. Different theories list a range from 6-8 but are always on the same line.

  • Paul Ekman – anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.
  • Robert Plutchik – joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation
  • Other lists include – love, hate, guilt, anger, shame, anxiety, grief/sadness, happiness.

Whichever theory or person you believe in following or making sense of, using the same words with your family is key.  All the words we use to describe emotions, sometimes complicate how we understand and experience core emotions.

You really can find whatever words that feel most appropriate for your family to use.  Age appropriate words for younger children.  However – at times of particular difficulty (like now, with coronavirus), it is really useful to bring things back to basics and identify feelings.

These core emotions, create more complex combinations of emotions that need unpicking. However, children and teenagers (and adults) need to have a basic framework to identify their emotions. Without really understanding the way we feel with a core emotion, its almost impossible to unpick more complex emotions. 

Behaviour communicating emotion –

A way to reframe this is by looking at your child/partners behaviour – does their behaviour match the word that they might use to describe how they feel?  Another thing I see all the time in my job is behaviours that communicate feelings. Young people who have either learned that they can not say the emotion they are feeling and therefore show behaviours instead.

Behaviours could be:

  • Aggression
  • Acting very sweetly
  • Hiding
  • Not talking as much as normal
  • Being over energetic
  • staying on their own more than normal.

You will know your partner or child more than anyone else, so will know what certain behaviours may mean.

Behaviour, whether it be a child hitting out, a child looking for a cuddle, a teenager hiding in their room, an adult changing the conversation from something difficult to talk about – should be labelled.

The behaviour or ‘acting out’ could be happening because:

  1. They have not actually learned how to describe their emotional state before they feel they need to show how they feel.
  2. They have learned that when they are (for example) angry/frustrated, this is ‘bad’ behaviour, rather than understanding that this is a normal and acceptable emotion. Management of this emotion is key, not surpressing the emotion.
  3. They have used so many different words to describe emotions, they don’t actually know what the words mean.

Revisit the task at the beginning.  Label how you feel now.  Can you?

By practicing this at breakfast/dinner or both, you will get in to the habit if labelling emotions. This will open a discussion that parents will have to find a way of managing.

If a child surprises you and says ‘I feel anxious’ at dinner time – this is the time to explore what they think they mean by this. Maybe they have picked the wrong word? Are they saying they feel happy but they look sad? Do we as adults have to encourage them to say words that fit the picture that we see.

Summary –

Try stripping things back –

  1. Write out the core words you as a family are going to use.
  2. Start labelling the core emotions when you see them in behaviour.

By labelling the emotion, you are teaching your family to tell you how you feel before behaviour shows you.



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  1. […] a way to simplify the words you are using at home to identify your feelings.  See previous blog…https://powex.co.uk/emotions At a stressful time (COVID 19), stresses and restrictions are causing people’s emotions to be […]

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