What is Emotion Vocabulary?

By Renée

April 30, 2021

emotion vocabulary, emotional intelligence, Emotional Intelligence books and toys, emotional recognition, emotions

As parents and caretakers, one of the greatest things we can do for our children is help them develop tools for facing adversity and the unpredictable world that awaits them once they leave the proverbial nest. Emotional intelligence (EI) contains within its structured competencies and pillars a guideline for developing these tools. Today, I’d like to focus on one of these key skills that can be taught starting the moment your baby enters the world: emotion vocabulary.


Emotion Vocabulary

Emotion vocabulary refers to one’s ability to recognize and identify emotions found across the entire emotional spectrum. Emotion vocabulary is closely tied in with the EI competency of Self-Awareness, but it also relates to Social Awareness and the ability to recognize the emotions of others.

Emotions come in many different flavors. Great writers and artists have spent lifetimes describing and identifying the complexity of human emotion. While the definition of “emotions” has been up for some considerable debate, during the 20th century there was an accepted spectrum of about 6-8 main types of emotions. Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions comprised joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation. 

emotion vocabulary wristbands EI

While newer research has pointed to a larger spectrum, Plutchik’s wheel is an acceptable place to start with toddlers. I designed the Hoppy & Poppie Emotion Wristbands to reflect the 6 most prominent and identifiable emotions for a toddler. Happy, sad, scared, excited, angry, and calm are some of many emotions featured in the Hoppy & Poppie PinkCheeks stories, giving children a chance to identify them right on the page. Not only that, but these are feelings that toddlers will begin to recognize in themselves and others, paving the way for a lifetime of emotion recognition.

More current research has identified 27 emotions, leading to the theory that emotions fall across a wider spectrum rather than 6-8 categories. It’s the in-between emotions like melancholy, nostalgia, etc., that add complexity and depth to our lives, but can be some of the most difficult to identify and even explain. Thankfully, there are more than a few ways to teach complex emotions at a young age, including one of my favorites: color association.


Learning by Association  

One of the biggest tools for building a toddler’s emotion vocabulary is color-coding or association. How many times have you seen emotions represented by specific colors? Anger is red, sadness is blue, joy is yellow, the list goes on.  

It’s an effective technique because both emotions and colors exist on a seamless spectrum. Colors and emotions blend from one into the next instead of being sectioned off from each other. Many of these associations are hard-wired into our society from generations of use. By blending colors together, you can provide your child with a tactile and tangible representation of a very abstract (but integral) concept.

My emotion wristbands were designed with this color association in mind, but I’m not the only one who has utilized this method to reach toddlers. The Pixar film; Inside Out, Yale’s educational device; the mood meter (link to article), and many famous paintings and painters all utilize colors as a way to create lifelong color-emotion associations.

I’ve actually written about Inside Out and the Mood Meter before, so I’ll include them here again as great tools for expanding your child’s emotion vocabulary.


Strategies For Life

renee reading to toddler building emotion vocabulary

Colors and emotions are a match made in heaven, but one less obvious strategy for improving emotion vocabulary is giving your child a challenge. Toddlers absorb a lot more than we give them credit for. Some people chide the parents and caregivers who play “Baby Mozart” for their young ones or take “Mommy and Me” painting classes, but exposing children to advanced concepts and artistic works, even before they can understand them, is actually great for their development.

The amount of words a baby hears in infancy can have a lasting impact on a child’s vocabulary. Research has shown that children learn from examples set by their parents, especially when it comes to vocab. But what does this all mean for parents?

The most important thing, experts say, is focusing on positive interactions at a young age. Encourage exploration and expression; don’t close off possibilities from your child. Another strategy is not altering the way you talk to your child. Don’t smother them in “baby talk” and don’t stilt your conversation with parenting buzzwords, just talk to them naturally, as though you were speaking with an older child that could understand your every word. While this may feel uncomfortable at first, think of it as speaking to the person you want your child to become. Or you can think of it as narrating your own life.

It’s also very important to challenge your child’s reading abilities, at all ages. The more complexity you expose your child to, the more inquisitive and motivated for learning your child will be. Many books that deal with complex emotional issues are not standard reading materials for youngsters, but let them try it as long as the content is age appropriate. Kids are full of questions, many of which cannot be answered by their parents and caretakers, so why not let them give reading a try?


Helping your child build their emotion vocabulary is a crucial step towards developing emotional intelligence. Having the vocabulary and sharp mind to identify emotions based on that vocabulary are intangible skills to cultivate. I hope this article has inspired you to push your kids’ abilities and help build their emotional vocabulary. I would love to hear in the comments if you have your own strategies at home or how you got on with my suggestions.



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