Supporting communication skills and emotions

How are children’s communication skills linked with their emotional development? 

Children use communication skills to: 

  • make friends and socialise with peers; 
  • talk about their feelings; 
  • understand how others are feeling; 
  • resolve conflicts with others. 

How do young children learn to talk about emotions? 

Young children often express their feelings physically (e.g. cry; throw themselves on the floor when upset; run around screaming and laughing when excited). They also express themselves through their mark making, play and movement. 

It is a complex skill for children to talk about emotions. It involves noticing feelings and what they mean. 

Children usually start using emotion words at around two years old. They talk about being ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ and can point to pictures that show these emotions. The ability to talk about more complex emotions continues to develop as they get older. 

How can I help children develop these skills? 

  • Talk about a wide range of emotions (excited, surprised, upset, frightened) to help children learn these words.  
  • Reflect back how children are feeling and why (E.g. ‘You look like you’re upset because Leia has the new pushchair’) to help children to make sense of social situations and also learn new words to describe feelings. 
  • Help children to understand how their peers feel by explaining and pointing it out to them (e.g. “I think Kelly’s sad because she wants a turn”). 
  • Make sure you have cosy and comfortable areas where children can go to talk about their feelings. Have visual supports such as emotion cards up on the wall so that children can refer to them easily. 
  • Don’t label particular emotions as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All emotions are valid and we want children to learn the words to be able to describe all the ways they feel! 
  • Talk about how you are feeling, too. For example, “I’m feeling sad today because I had to leave my cat at home by herself.”   
  • Talk about how characters feel in books, even if it isn’t mentioned explicitly in the words. Often, even in simple books the main character has a challenge they need to overcome or a puzzle they need to solve. For example, in Dear Zoo the central character is looking for a pet. How does he feel when this range of unsuitable pets is sent to him? 
  • During role play, take on the perspectives of different characters and talk about how they are feeling (e.g. “The dinosaur is upset because no one is listening to him!”). 
  • Share your favourite ideas for developing children’s emotional vocabulary with parents and carers so they can try them at home as well. 


  1. Clegg, J., Law, J., Rush, R., Peters, T. J., & Roulstone, S. (2015). The contribution of early language development to children’s emotional and behavioural functioning at 6 years: an analysis of data from the Children in Focus sample from the ALSPAC birth cohort. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56(1), 67-75 
  1. Lindsay, G., & Dockrell, J. E. (2012). Longitudinal patterns of behavioral, emotional and social difficulties and self-concepts in adolescents with a history of specific language impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 43, 445-460