Talking about emotions with your children

The importance of emotional development

Emotional development is a complex task that begins in infancy and continues into adulthood. Children’s responses to the different feelings they experience every day have a big impact on their choices, their behavior, and on how well they cope and enjoy life. Emotional development involves learning what feelings and emotions are, understanding how and why they happen, recognizing one’s own feelings and those of others, and developing effective ways of managing them. As children grow and are exposed to different situations their emotional lives also become more complex. Developing skills for managing a range of emotions is therefore very important for their emotional well being.

And there’s a hard task for you as a parent: how to learn your child to deal with their emotions. The difficult thing about it is, that normally the emotions of your children provoke emotions with yourself as well. So in the meanwhile your trying to help your child with their emotions you need to control yours. But the effort is worth it. Emotional development in infancy and early childhood is important for several interrelated skills. In comparison to children with deficits in emotional development, children with a developed emotional competence are more likely:

  • to sustain learning;
  • to engage in empathic and prosocial behaviors;
  • to express appropriate emotions in various contexts;
  • to use adaptive strategies to deal with negative/upsetting emotions (e.g., anger);
  • to reduce several risk factors associated with psychopathology.

Taken together, these abilities predict children’s early school success and positive interpersonal relationships with peers and family members.

Developing emotional skills

Emotional development is actually built into the architecture of young children’s brains in response to their individual personal experiences and the influences of the environments in which they live. These growing interconnections among brain circuits support the emergence of increasingly mature emotional behavior. Emotions do not all emerge at the same time. Primary emotions (e.g., fear, anger, sadness, interest, and joy) appear in the first year whereas secondary emotions (e.g., embarrassment, guilt, and shame) are usually expressed by the end of the second year of life. Throughout the early childhood years, children develop increasing capacities to use language to communicate how they feel and to gain help without “melting down,” as well as to inhibit the expression of emotions that are inappropriate for a particular setting. The emotional experiences of newborns and young infants occur most commonly during periods of interaction with a caregiver (such as feeding, comforting, and holding).

We now know that differences in early childhood temperament — ranging from being extremely outgoing and adventurous to being painfully shy and easily upset by anything new or unusual — are grounded in one’s biological makeup.  Besides their temperament as well the culture wherein children grow up tends to influence the intensity and the type of emotions expressed. Specifically, emotion expression and understanding are likely to vary among children depending on the way children are socialized, the presence of comfort of objects, the proximity with parental figures, and situational contexts. The emotional health of young children — or the absence of it — is closely tied to the social and emotional characteristics of the environments in which they live, which include not only their parents but also the broader context of their families and communities.

But to know how important the development of emotions is, doesn’t always makes it easy to help your children in the right way. So…


What to do??


  • Help your children understand their emotions by first giving the feelings names. For example, you might say to your child, “Mommy left on a trip, you are sad.” By giving your child a label for her emotions, you enable your child to develop a vocabulary for talking about feelings.
  • Give children lots of opportunities to identify feelings in themselves and others. For example, you might say to your child, “Riding your bike is so much fun. I see you smiling. Are you happy?”
  • Throughout your routines, model labeling your own emotions (e.g., “I feel frustrated because I cannot open this jar of pickles!”).
  • Praise your child the first time he tries to talk about his feelings instead of just reacting. It is REALLY important to let your child know exactly what she did right and how proud you are of her for talking about feelings.
  • You might want to remind your child that, “It’s ok to tell me how you feel, but it’s not ok to hurt others or things when you feel (name feeling).
  • Teach your child the different ways we can deal with feelings. Let your child come up with ways she can deal with her feelings. Talk about positive and not so positive ways to express feelings.
  • While reading stories to children, have children guess how the characters in the story are feeling. How can children tell that the characters are feeling that way? Can the children make a face that shows that feeling?
  • Use meals and routines at the end of the day as a time to discuss the day with your children. Talk about events during the day that made you happy, times when you were frustrated and work you did that made you proud of yourself. Ask the children to share their experiences.
  • WARNING – Do not try and practice when your child is in the middle of a “meltdown.” Use quiet, calm times to teach and practice the new strategies.


Some fun ways:

  • Play “feelings photographer” for a day: If your child is old enough to handle a camera, taking pictures of people expressing different emotions can be a fun way to teach her about those emotions. Or take pictures of the children making different emotion faces and make different posters for each emotion.
  • Play an emotion walking game while outside. Ring a bell and have your children walk around like they are sad. Ring the bell again and have them walk like they are mad. Repeat the activity until you have practiced several emotions.
  • During bathroom routines, have children look in mirror and practice making mad/sad/happy faces.
  • Play a “Mystery Emotion” game. Put an emotion face card in an envelope without showing the children. Act out that emotion, and encourage children to guess what Mystery Emotion is hiding in the envelope.
  • Listen to some different types of music such as rock music, classic etc., let the children dance to the music, ask children how the song made the children feel.



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