Why a Feelings Wheel Supports Your Positive Parenting Journey

little girl covering her face with feelings emojis

Feelings make us human. They’re constant, primal–and kids can go through about a dozen of them in ten brief minutes.

Luckily, whether your child is a teary toddler or a raging teen, there’s a shortcut to deciphering them. 

In 1980, Robert Plutchik developed what he called the Wheel of Emotions. Shortly afterwards, in 1982, Gloria Willcox published The Feeling Wheel: A Tool for Expanding Awareness of Emotions and Increasing Spontaneity and Intimacy. 

Countless versions of the feelings wheel now abound. You can find one shaped like a pizza, another using emojis, and even a wheel turned into a board game.

No matter the version you use, each one dives into the intricacies of human sentiment. But for this particular article, we’ll be referring specifically to Dr. Robert Plutchik’s 2016 wheel (shown below).

Dr. Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
The goal of the Wheel is to help people understand and identify not only what they feel, but the specifics of those feelings. Because sometimes, it’s not enough–or doesn’t feel quite right–to say you’re sad, happy, or scared: especially when somebody’s hiding in the closet over a homework assignment they would’ve sailed through last week.

There’s actually SO much more going on. 

How to Navigate the Wheel of Emotions

The middle and outer rings represent the primary and secondary feelings that constitute mainstream emotions.

The center, like a pinpointed bullseye, represents the extreme version of those emotions. 

Because emotions are notoriously complex, the pastel in-between spaces are labeled to show how different emotions can also blend together.  

The Wheel is also designed to mirror contrasting feelings. The opposite of ecstasy, for example, is grief. Both are found on symmetrically opposite sides of the circle.

The Wheel also enlists the help of colors to visually group, separate emotions, and intensify emotions. 

But despite exploring feelings that are as varied as a Pantone palette, how can we truly apply the Wheel of Emotions to our daily lives and positive parenting journeys? 

Positive parenting is all about using tools to manage obstacles. It’s also about getting to the core of problems. (Our FREE Webinar offers a glimpse into these tools and this mindset.) 

Luckily, the Wheel is another tool designed with similar strategic advantages in mind. 

The following are a few practical applications to make you ask, “Where has this been my whole life?”

Locate the Root of Misbehavior

Misbehavior is tricky. You know the saying: If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.

Well, when it comes to misbehavior, that’s not the case. It’s usually a sign of something else entirely. 

Positive parenting stresses that kids who misbehave aren’t bad. Instead, they lack the skills to manage their emotions.

Maybe they don’t feel like they belong with their peer group. Or, they feel insignificant because parents rarely make time to play with them. They may even feel a lack of control. This, in turn, tempts kids to act out to gain attention and power–even if our response (or the response from their peers) is negative.

You see, more than anything, kids long to feel capable, respected, and valued. 

Lately, it seems like your teenage daughter is mad about everything. There could be a million reasons why, but before you jump to conclusions about the difficulties of raising teenagers, consult the Wheel of Emotions. 

When you locate rage at the center of the circle and the emotions that stem from that category, what do you see?

Your daughter could be feeling annoyed because of a friend’s new boyfriend, or angry because she’s struggling to understand her homework. What’s least likely is that she’s raging for no reason.

Instead of chalking up her behavior to a teen stereotype, shrugging it off, or returning her rage with MORE rage, try finding the root of the problem. 

I’m not suggesting nagging and prying. But now is a good time to ask questions to help her open up and explain what’s going on. 

Your opening can be as simple as “Something seems to be bothering you. I want you to know that I’m here if there’s anything you’d like to tell me or something I can help you with.”

Finding the core reason behind misbehavior saves everyone’s sanity and confusion. It also eliminates the need to use ineffective and inapplicable parenting strategies, like punishment.

Choose Problem-Solving Over Punishment 

Punishment (as defined in Positive Discipline as any tactic that causes a child blame, shame, or pain) is a reactive behavior that many parents routinely employ when kids misbehave. The dilemma is, punishment focuses on the behavior itself; it never pries open the reason behind that behavior to aid in fixing it long-term. 

Punishment isn’t designed to identify problems. So naturally, it can never be the solution. 

The Wheel of Emotions can help by keeping us proactive. For example, there’s no need to spank a 3-year-old for purposefully smearing toothpaste all over the counter to catch your eye. It may be tempting, considering your own rage welling up inside. But it’s not going to stop the misbehavior.

punishment isn't a solution

Instead, consider that your toddler–if he is making a mess to get your attention–is feeling angry. When implementing the Wheel in this scenario, you will see that the opposite of anger is fear

So, it’s possible that your son is angry because he’s actually afraid of being undervalued. Maybe you haven’t had as much one-on-one time with him lately, or you’ve been expressing frustration with his behavior. Once again, children need to feel significant, valued, and loved. 

Perhaps your 8-year-old daughter has been acting unusually pensive. She seems to have a lot on her young mind.  On the Wheel, the opposite of pensive is serene. So, her pensiveness may be related to an inability to find a solution, and/or peace with a friend, new curriculum at school, a sibling, etc. 

Your best bet in these two situations is to implement two Positive Parenting Solutions® tools: MIND, BODY AND SOUL TIME® activities–which remind our children how much we love and support them, despite our busy schedules–and the Decision-Rich Environment tool, which enriches attitudes, self-confidence, problem-solving, and a feeling of power.  

Using the Wheel, you can apply an associated, proactive tool to troubleshoot behavior and eliminate ineffective, punitive measures. 

Pro Tip: For Positive Parenting Solutions® members, please review MIND, BODY AND SOUL TIME® activities and the Decision-Rich Environment tool in Steps 1 and 3 of the course.

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The Benefits of Helping Kids Identify Big Emotions

There’s no denying it–kids are born with their emotions. 

The tantrum your 2-year-old threw yesterday? It was almost shocking to see so much toil and rage unleashed from such a tiny little body.

One of the best ways to help our kids, even at their earliest levels of verbal comprehension, is to help them identify and label these powerful, instinctive sentiments. 

Nothing can be more exasperating, even for adults, than not being able to identify what’s bothering us. But when kids can validate powerful emotions with a label, they feel less overwhelmed.

Perhaps your 2-year-old is losing her mind over the popsicle melting all over her hands. She’s learning the sun melts things faster than she can eat them, and she’s enraged! 

The Wheel reminds us that annoyance, anger, and rage are all closely related. We can calmly get down on our daughter’s level, face to face, wait for the tears and screaming to subside, and explain that her frustration is making her mad. 

“I know you’re irritated that your hands are messy and half your popsicle is gone. I get it! You’re angry.”

Naming the feelings behind big tantrums is one of the best ways to quell them. Instead of suppressing emotions, it alleviates them through acknowledgment and empathy. 

Kids learning to label emotions will also have an easier time with anxiety, depression, and aggression. And fewer of their troubles will be pent-up and/or brushed aside. 

By speaking openly about feelings, kids will also be more willing to share their thoughts and concerns with us. As parents, it’s imperative to preserve communication channels for the many challenges and hurdles to come. 

Maybe your teenage son just failed his history exam while all his friends aced it. When you ask how the test went, he says, “I don’t want to talk about it, but let’s just say I’m stupid.” 

Feelings of ineptitude, according to Gloria Willcox’s Wheel, make people melancholy. Using this knowledge, you can say, “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but when people feel inferior or like they’ve failed in some way, it’s natural to feel sad.”

While you’ll want to jump into ‘fixing’ feelings or make them out to be less than you think they should be, recognizing them first is crucial. Then, you can use encouragement to focus on a better approach.  

“I understand your feelings, but I also want you to know you aren’t stupid. That is a terrible, unfair word. All intelligent people fail sometimes. They simply need to try again–maybe with a little help or support.”

Explaining to kids why they feel those negative emotions–and then adding encouragement–guides kids towards surmounting them.

The Wheel of Emotions Teaches Emotional Problem-Solving 

Detecting the true problem behind any emotion–or a set of them– is only the first part of the equation. 

Once kids have recognized and even vocalized their emotions, the next step is to use this knowledge to solve emotional problems.

One way to do this is to look to the opposing side of the Wheel to find an appropriate antidote. 

Your 16-year-old daughter might be disgusted by everything, from the way boys act at school to the way you sing in the shower and cheer her on at basketball practice. While studying the Wheel with your daughter and helping her identify her emotions, you both see that the opposing emotion to disgust is trust.  

This might help decipher what’s really going on. Perhaps your daughter is starting to individuate herself from you and her peers. This isn’t just teen angst, per se…it’s the normal process young adults go through when deciding who they are and how that differs from their friends and the parents who are raising them.

Imagine a 4-year-old who acts profoundly bored every time you try to introduce him to the piano. It may seem like he’s acting rude when you ask him to listen to his instructor and he just stares off into space. But, per the Wheel, he just may not be interested in it.  

You can try to inspire him with some amazing examples of piano virtuosos or talk about the interesting things pianists do (alongside a ton of practice), but if he’s still bored, it may not be the right fit at the right time.

There are always actions we can take to analyze and combat negative feelings and actions, and the Wheel of Emotions offers an inspiring menu of options. Not everything can be healed all at once, though, as many solutions take commitment and time. 

At first, we can always walk kids through long-term and short-term problem-solving techniques. Then, after some practice, we can rely on them to tackle issues on their own.  

Before long, our children will gain more independence and emotional intelligence. 

What could be more empowering?

Final Thoughts

Don’t forget to connect to your own emotions! 

The Wheel of Emotions doesn’t just apply to kids. It’s designed for us, too. (Gloria Willcox’s Feeling Wheel contains one or two adult-specific emotions). 

After all, how can we empathize with kids and help them analyze their emotions when we don’t understand our own feelings? 

Before using a Wheel to dissect your teenager’s latest mood mystery or your 6-year-old’s tendency to feel discouraged at school, try implementing it when you feel overwhelmed by an emotion yourself. 

Like most things, kids learn best by example. If we are masters of our own self-reflection, our kids will follow suit. If we sympathize through understanding and relatability, our kids will become more empathetic. And if we communicate well through it all, they likely will, too. 

It’s always beneficial to maintain perspective. A child coming across as unnecessarily mean, scared, or moody has a reason for it. By using an outside source of analysis, we can process their actions and attitudes less personally and more objectively. 

And don’t forget–the Wheel is just one way to contemplate emotions. Not all emotions are represented, and many can be experienced at once. But when used as a resource, it can help us stay more attuned to our family’s desires and deficiencies and assist our kids through emotional growing pains. 

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.