"I'm mad!" yells your three-year-old as she stomps out of the room. Ten tearful minutes later she returns and announces "I'm sad." By the time they reach their preschool years, most children have been taught to identify strong feelings like anger and sadness. We coach our children by telling them it's okay to be angry, and we tell them when they seem sad. However, we sometimes overlook the importance of adding depth and breadth to our children's emotional vocabulary.

"Developing an emotional vocabulary is important, because it means a child will learn how he is feeling, and can also 'tune in' to what others might be feeling," explains Leslie Forstadt, Child and Family Development Specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Developing that ability to "tune in" to other people's emotions plays a big role in enhancing a child's social development. A child who can read emotional cues has an easier time building and maintaining friendships because she can gauge other children's reactions to her overtures and respond in a socially appropriate manner.

However, reading those cues and knowing how to respond doesn't come naturally to children –it needs to be taught. "We know as adults that there can be complexity to any experience, and we can teach a child how to find more words for what they feel," says Forstadt. "By teaching him more words for his experience, he sees that there is a range to emotions, and he can learn how he needs to respond."

There are a number of ways parents can help children increase their emotional vocabulary, beginning with the simple action of expressing your own emotions using a broader range of words. For instance, instead of letting loose with a string of expletives when the DVD player doesn't work correctly, you can explain to your child that you're frustrated and irritated because she can't watch the movie she wanted to see. But broadening your child's understanding of different emotions doesn't always have to be work. Here are some playful ways to do it:

  • Play the mirror game. Begin by sitting face-to-face with your child, so that you are each other's "mirrors." Affect a facial expression, then ask your child to guess what feeling you are trying to express, and have him try to make the same face. As the game progresses, provide your child with an actual mirror so he can see what his face looks like when he is "surprised," "annoyed" or "joyful."
  • Have a "feelings" hunt. Provide your child with a pair of scissors, a stack of magazines and a magnifying glass. She can use the magnifying glass to find pictures of people expressing different emotions. When she finds them, have her cut them out and tell you a story about when she felt the same way.
  • List the noises feelings make. Work with your child to identify the noises that indicate different emotions. Sure he knows that "Boo-Hoo" and sad go together, but he may not be able to tell you that "Oof" goes with clumsy or that a snorting "Hmmph" can be the sound of jealousy.
  • Read stories together. "There are wonderful children’s books to use to help children with their emotional vocabularies," states Forstadt. Among the many titles to explore are My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, When Sophie Gets Angry- Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang and Glad Monster, Sad Monster: A Book About Feelings by Anne Miranda and Ed Emberley.

By far, the best way to increase your child's emotional vocabulary is to label the emotions she doesn't recognize. After all, reminds Forstadt, "by talking to children about the ranges of emotion, we teach them to learn more about themselves."