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The surprisingly simple way to teach your kids to be emotionally intelligent

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It's about using vocabulary like a good toolbox.

My toddler was insisting we should cut down the tree in the backyard. He wasn’t impressed by my observation that it was night time, and raining, and anyway, I didn’t have a chainsaw. Also, I like that tree. Normally, he would have cried, but he didn’t. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then declared, “Mama, I just so, so angry!” I was very proud of him.

I’ve been working on his emotional vocabulary with him, and it’s making both of our lives a lot better. Specifically, what I’m working on — for me as much as for him — is something called “emotional granularity.” The term comes from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions are Made, and it’s simpler than it sounds.

A person with good emotional granularity sees the nuances between her different emotions, even the similar ones. Somebody with low emotional granularity might say that he feels sad, but if his emotional granularity were better, he would say he feels dejected, or disappointed. Instead of saying he’s feeling happy, he might understand that he feels excited, or delighted, or content. These distinctions are real, and they are valuable.

People with a rich vocabulary of emotion words are ”better with with emotion regulation, or the crucial life skill of being able to not always hit something when you’re angry, run when you’re afraid, or laugh when you think something is funny.” They’re even less likely to backslide, if they’re recovering from an addiction. Having a broader emotional vocabulary makes it easier to understand, cope with, and express, what you feel.

It’s all about efficiency. “If you asked me what I had for dinner this evening,” Barrett writes, “I could say ‘baked dough with tomato sauce and cheese.’ But this is much less efficient than saying ‘pizza.’” That’s just convenience when you’re talking about your dinner, but when you’re trying to understand a powerful emotion without overreacting to it, it really helps to be able to zero in on exactly what it is.

Barrett explains how when you have the language to describe a very specific emotional concept, you’re giving your brain the tool it needs to cope. Instead of spending energy addressing the problem in its vague form, you’ve narrowed in on exactly what you need. It’s like pulling a splinter out with tweezers instead of your fingers. You might be able to do it without the tool, but it’ll take longer and won’t work as well. Your emotional granularity is like a good toolbox.

This makes so much sense to me. Have you ever felt just generally crabby, without really understanding your crankiness? It’s hard not to take it out on everyone around you. You’ll find yourself driving aggressively, snapping at your kid, withdrawing from your spouse … we’ve all been there. But when you identify that same exact feeling as frustration, or disappointment, or resentment, it doesn’t take over your life so badly. When the concept is specific, it loses some of its bite.

So for my part, I’m pushing myself to be as specific as I can when I’m feeling a big emotion, whether it’s one I like, or one I don’t, now that I know how important it is. Not just for the sake of my family, but for my sake, too. I can already tell that the habit is rubbing off on my son. I’m hoping to help him along this path by reading to him as much as possible, and by having lots and lots of conversations. Both of those things are the most powerful way to foster a broad, nuanced, vocabulary, and I think there’s reason to believe that working on that vocabulary could really help him through his life.

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