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The color of emotion

Is color the first class in children's emotional health?

"Anyone who has ever felt blue, seen red, blacked out, or turned green knows we're prone to make emotional associations with different shades" wrote Winifred Gallagher. I believe this to be true. The connection between colors and feelings is probably the most simple and profound. I would suggest even more powerful for young children without the words to convey their feelings.

Scratching the surface

Modern science has just started to scratch the surface of the enormous influence (i.e. consciously, unconsciously) color has upon on our mental states, mood and emotions. Hemphill and Lange have concluded that colors do indeed impact our feelings. It's the start of the all-important fact gathering process. Interestingly enough, color has been used medicinally since as far back as the Ancient Egyptians and Chinese.

It seems reasonable that color influences mood. Ask anyone how they feel watching a sunset, rainbow or sets a mood. Commercially there is even such as thing as "mood lighting" to stimulate certain feelings via varying colors and wavelengths of light. My real question is: Can it work the other way around? Can children express their initial feeling states via color?

Studies suggest YES. Researchers at the University of California conducted a study that found young children assigned positive feelings to bright colors and negative feelings to dark ones. Boyatzis and Varghese also found that boys in general were more positive towards darker colors. Such a simplified study begs more questions but forms the basic basis of understanding that children do assign feelings to colors.

Delving deeper

Yes, there is a color feeling connection in preschool aged children. Red is mad, blue is sad, yellow is happy and green is glad. This commonsensical approach to tying primary colors with basic feelings is effective for young children. It is used endlessly in pre-schools, children's hospitals and trauma centers to access the often ineffable emotions of rapidly growing children.

The American Red Cross, St. Jude's Hospital, Children's Hospital in Boston, Scholastic and many, many non-profit organizations have incorporated the use of children's ability to connect feelings to colors as a "way in" to their world. It is my belief that only by entering a child's emotional world can you assist them in identifying feelings, connecting them to colors and teaching tools of emotional regulation. Such tools may be drawing out feelings, playing out problems or talking them through in order to exit stuck, negative emotions.

Having personally worked with Tibetan refugee children in Asia and counseled many emotionally troubled children in New York City - I was also individually inspired to help children foster skills of positive emotional health. I wrote a simple children's picture book that is now gifted via Creative Visions Foundation ( to assist preschool aged children in making the color, feeling and creative outlet connection. The project name is called "The Rainbow Well" on the above indicated site.

A better world

Giving all of our children a better understanding of their emotions, how to connect with them at a young age as well as suggest creative outlets (i.e. drawing, dancing, talking, building and playing) to learn about regulating their emotional states is empowering. It requires that you believe children are bright and exceedingly capable to begin navigating their world.

And ultimately "life doesn't count for much unless you're willing to do your small part to leave our children - all of our children - a better world" stated Barack Obama. Let's each right now commit to doing our small part in a big way.

Footnote: Color connections are greatly influenced by culture such as White in America often symbolizes purity while in Taipei it is associated with death. In addition, color is constructed differently and more sophisticatedly in adults minds such as one color can have 2 meanings (i.e. red for romance or red for blood). Color discussion above is aimed at simplifying the complex subject of colors, feelings and coping skills in young children.

By Maureen Healy
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