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March 14, 2023
by Patricia Tomasi

How Do Children Come To Understand The Meaning Of Emotion Words Like 'Sad' Or 'Happy'?

March 14, 2023 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

A new study published in the Journal of Child Development looked at how caregiver speech can predict the emergence of children’s emotion vocabulary.

“We were interested in understanding how children learn words like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ that label emotional experiences,” study author Mira L. Nencheva told us. “We were curious if the words that surround emotion labels might help children learn their meaning.”

The research team predicted that emotion labels like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ may be surrounded by other positive words that could help children figure out their meaning. For example, if a child hears a sentence like: ‘What a wonderful day, I’m so [blank]!’, it may be easy to tell that [blank] is a positive feeling because of other positive words like ‘wonderful’.

“Whether children can use words like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ to talk about emotions predicts how well they get along with their peers, self-soothe after a negative event, and thrive at school,” Nencheva told us. “However, learning what it means to be happy or sad is no simple task. When we say the word ‘sad’, we can’t point to or hold the thing we’re referring to the same way that we can if we were to use the word ‘ball’. We wanted to shed light on what other information children can use to learn these important words.”

To test their theory, researchers first looked at the words that children say to see if children are more likely to know an emotion label like ‘happy’ if they know other related words (e.g., ‘smile’, ‘hugs’, etc.). Second, they measured the extent to which caregivers surround emotion labels like ‘happy’ with other positive words in the sentences before and after using the label (or surround negative labels like ‘sad’ with other negative words). Finally, they looked at whether the extent to which parents surround emotion labels with related words relates to children's own use of emotion labels.

“We found that children are more likely to know a given emotion label when they also know many other related positive or negative words,” Nencheva told us. “Further, caregivers used many related positive or negative words in the sentences before and after using an emotion label when talking to their toddlers. The extent to which parents did so predicted how well children applied emotion labels to the right positive or negative context. Parents surround emotion labels with related words in a way that may scaffold children’s learning.”

This study provides correlational evidence that it may be important for caregivers to provide related words when labeling emotions to help children make sense of these complex words. However, the research team only explored one of many ways in which caregivers can support children’s emotion label learning and they did so in a homogenous group of families.

“There are likely many other sources of information that children can use to learn these words that may vary across communities,” Nencheva told us. “For example, facial expressions, body posture, touch, intonation, as well as the broader routines in which emotion labels are embedded may play an important role.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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