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Helping children identify, express AND understand their emotions

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Image by Leo Rivas




How children interpret and understand emotions in themselves and other people, has a big impact on their behaviour, their social interactions and ultimately their long term emotional wellbeing.


Parents play a key part in helping their child's emotional development


If infants experience a safe and secure early attachment with primary caregivers who are nurturing and predictable, then the child is off to a great start.  The parent-child relationship is the foundation of healthy emotional development because it is here that the first child learns about emotions.



Underneath every behaviour, there is a feeling


From the time they are infants, children begin to express their emotions through their behaviours. They will cry when they feel hungry, tired or uncomfortable and they depend on their parent or caregivers to respond to them and soothe them.  If they are excited or happy they may laugh or lift their arms to be picked up. When parents laugh and smile with their baby, the baby learns about positive emotions.


As they grow, children begin to express their feelings in new ways.  As toddlers, they will show their unhappy emotions with behaviours such as tantrums, clinging,  whining or refusing to co-operate.  As children grow older and begin to understand more about the world, new feelings might emerge such as worry or fears and behaviours such as not wanting to separate to go to sleep or school might emerge.


Children just like adults, get angry, frustrated, scared and anxious and often it's their behaviour, rather than their words that convey these emotions.  Behaviours such as tantrums, avoidance, crying, arguing etc can be challenging and confusing for parents. If parents can take a moment to consider "what is my child feeling right now?"  this helps uncover the feelings underneath the child's behaviour.  By then giving the child words for these feelings, the focus can then be moved to help the child learn more appropriate ways to communicate and cope next time they experience those feelings.


Parents are key to helping children with their emotional development, but other adults who may be around can be a great source of help too. Grandparents, carers, teachers, counsellors and therapists can all help children learn about and cope with their emotions.  


When children learn to identify and express their emotions in a positive way- they learn skills to manage and cope with their feelings.


Sending the message to children that it is OK to talk about how we feel begins by talking about our own feelings. This both normalises emotional expression and gives children words to use when big emotions arise.

How Can You Help Kid's with Their Emotions


Listen, pay attention to them and tune into cues such as their facial expressions and their body language.  Notice their behaviours, are they speaking less, do they seem withdrawn, angry or sad.


Understand that behind every behaviour is a feeling.  Ask yourself what is it that they are trying to tell me with this behaviour? Could they be worried about something,  frustrated or frightened?


Talk to them and ask them about what is happening for them. Be curious and interested, give them time to respond and re-assure them it's OK to talk about what's on their mind. Give them words for their feelings by naming emotions for them.  Be a role model and talk about feelings yourself. 


Teach your child new ways to manage their emotions. Tell them how you cope with feelings, help them problem-solve and suggest and practice ways they can manage next time they are struggling with a big feeling.


When children learn to express their feelings when they are young, they are off to a great emotional start.






Why is it important to help kids with their feelings?

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