Why Labeling a Child’s Emotions Can Backfire (and What to do Instead)

Emotions, parents

Every parent has done it. You see that your child or teen is struggling with a situation, and you try to help them understand their emotions: “You seem angry.” “You’re really feeling frustrated.” “I can see that you’re upset.” But instead of soothing the child, your words serve as a trigger.  “I am not!” the child replies. “You don’t know how I feel!” Or simply: “Shut up!”

When I recently polled hundreds of parents about this phenomenon, more than four out of five admitted that labeling a child’s emotions often backfires. Why is it that merely placing a label on child’s emotion makes them even more agitated? A few reasons:

  • Negative valence. For one thing, children understand from an early age that our culture treats some emotions as positive and others as negative. So when a parent suggests that a child is experiencing a negative emotion (angry, sad, jealous, frustrated) they might feel you’re placing blame on them.
  • Boundary crossing. Secondly, from the time they’re toddlers, children are developing a sense of autonomy. When we suggest how they might be feeling, they might feel intruded upon—and defensive. They want to name their own emotions, and may feel we’ve crossed a line.
  • Lack of symbolic reasoning. In addition, young children don’t have the innate ability to connect sensations in their bodies with emotional meaning. They need to develop symbolic reasoning—the capacity to let one thing stand for another. When labeling emotions backfires, it may be because the child hasn’t yet built bridges between basic feelings in the body and words. So when we label an emotion, it’s like watering soil without first planting seeds.
  • Physiological state. Finally, a child needs to be in a calm enough physiological state to hear and process anything we say. The autonomic nervous system runs along different pathways that support either social engagement, fighting, fleeing, or shutting down (among other responses).

Given all of these reasons, what’s a better way to help our children when they’re experiencing various emotions?

  • Focus on your attunement first. We tend to lead with words, but what a child in distress needs most is warm presence, expressed through our body language. Experiment with the types of presence that soothe your child’s nervous system. Use your presence to help the big waves of feelings pass and give the child the message that you are able to tolerate their distress.
  • Use simple words. When a child is deeply upset, you can also use using simple words can express that the child is safe, and that you are with them. The child’s autonomic nervous system in distress longs to feel safe. Less is more here.
  • Start with nurturing and curiosity, not labels. “Oh sweetheart, let’s see what’s happening— can you describe it to me?” “What do you need in this moment, how can I help?” The foundation of awareness of one’s basic feelings is the ability to observe oneself. Model this for by showing your child how you observe yourself. Then nurture this capacity in them, through acceptance and a sturdy presence, come what may.

While labeling emotions too early can easily backfire, once a child is ready, emotional literacy provides many benefits to mental and physical health. I’ll focus on how to nurture emotions and the ability to talk about them—among other topics—in webinars and future posts, and in my latest book, Brain-Body Parenting, and in a webinar on how to label feelings effectively. Know you aren’t alone in this, and you don’t have to get it right all the time, children are resilient!