How to help emotions

Children begin to learn about emotions very early in life. They need to know how to recognise, understand and manage their emotions for many reasons and parents are often the first people who model these skills. Most children quickly develop the ability to communicate emotions; initially through facial expressions and body language and later through words. While this is happening they also start to learn how to manage the many different emotions they will feel. For some children these skills do not come as freely, but there are things that can be done to help build these skills.

Why do emotions matter? Before your child begins kindergarten, emotional development will have already begun. As children begin to interact with peers their social and intellectual development goes hand in hand. Emotions are important because they motivate our choices, behaviour and attitudes.

Emotional development includes:

  • Identifying others feelings? Is mum happy, sad or angry?

  • Understanding their own feelings. "Am I sad or angry?"

  • Understanding about feelings. "What is this feeling I have and what made me feel this way?"

  • Developing skills in managing the way they feel. Knowing when they are upset and removing themselves from the situation. "What can I do to feel better?"

  • Changing behaviour to fit situations. “I am angry but it is not OK to have a tantrum here”.

  • Learning to recognise feelings of others. “Alex looks sad, I wonder what happened?”

  • Developing empathy for others. “Alex must be feeling sad about his lost cat.”

  • Developing and maintaining good relationships with friends, family and others by responding appropriately to others emotional cues.

How does emotional development relate to social development?

To have “strong emotional development” your child needs to respond well to many different social situations. The ability to watch, recognise and understand emotions is important for social development. We do not always notice how our body language, tone of voice and facial expressions impact on the way we communicate with the people in our world. Help your child to see how their emotions look to others and impact on how others interact with them by talking about feelings. “See how her face looks, we had better not bother her now, she looks angry” or “I see your face is smiling and happy, when you look like that other people will want to play with you”.

Children are highly aware of their surroundings and the people in them. Like a sponge they continually learn and respond to what they hear, see, and touch. It is important to remember what your face looks like when you are communicating with your child, especially in situations of heightened emotion.

The most significant and important relationship in a child’s life is the one that they develop with their parents. Parents provide a constant model of all behaviour (good and bad) for their children. Children will observe and learn from:

  • How parents interact with them

  • How parents interact with other family members

  • How parents interact with the people outside their family

Emotion and behaviour: How can you help direct your child’s emotional development?

  • It is important to remember that children are not born with the skills to control their feelings. They are easily overwhelmed by strong feelings including physical reactions e.g. heart racing, butterflies in stomach, at first they are not able to calm themselves independently. Babies and children need their parents to help them develop these skills.

  • Often children experience frustration which may result in tantrums, as there is a difference between the things they want to do and the things that they are actually able to do. Tantrums are often just a way for the child to express how they are feelings because they do not yet have the words to communicate these intense feelings. After your child has calmed down, start to calmly speak to your child and open up a conversation about what the tantrum was about. Allow your child the opportunity to gesture or communicate their feelings, and the causes of those feelings. This may reduce the number of tantrums and at the same time, continue emotional development.

  • Children can respond to emotion like a reflex e.g. I feel angry about what Billy did, so I will show him by pushing him. Children can act quickly on feelings without considering consequences or reviewing the situation and this is reflected in their behaviour. Use real life opportunities to discuss feelings with your child and suggest more appropriate ways to express feelings as well as the consequences of their actions.

  • From around the age of five, school age children are more mindful of their own feelings and how to recognise the feelings of others. As their speech and language develops they are better at communicating how they feel and in turn become more able to change and adapt their feelings and in turn their behaviour.

How can you support your child’s emotional development?

  • Actively engage and play with your child. Allow them the opportunity to feel secure and attached within your relationship. This will give them the support and confidence they need to develop a strong sense of self. This sense of self will help them explore their world and experience emotions.

  • Be aware of how the home environment affects your child. Aim to keep the home one that feels safe, calm and welcoming. Establishing some routines may also assist in focusing your child, as they are able to predict what is coming next in their daily schedule and so feel secure.

  • Recognise and acknowledge your child’s emotions - “I see you are sad”

  • Help your child develop words to describe their emotions – “it looks like you are feeling angry”

  • Praise good behaviour – “I liked the way you came to talk to me when you got upset”

  • Model and suggest appropriate ways of managing emotions - You are frustrated with that new game. Let's go play on the swing for a few minutes and try again when you are feeling calmer.

You may like to download our feelings book to use with your child to help with their emotional development. This book is designed to help children develop understanding of their emotions and how to manage them, as well as to understand the emotions of others and appropriate ways to respond. It is based around ideas presented in various workshops by Tony Attwood and further information about developing awareness and management of feelings can be found in his numerous publications and on his website

The book provides printable pages which can be used in any order and adjusted to the needs of different children. The pages can be completed using writing, drawing, photos or symbols depending of the child’s language and literacy levels. Pages of words and symbols are included at the end which can be used as needed.

It is usually recommended that children begin by talking about their own emotions and how to recognise them, then later moving onto the emotions of others, such as parents, teachers, siblings and friends. The pages include “my feelings” type pages and pages that can be used to discuss other people in the child’s life.

It is usually best to start with “happy” as some of the “things that make me happy” can be used later as strategies to “fix” the other negative emotions. Next you can move through sad and angry feelings. You may then go onto some of the more subtle emotions from the lists with older children.

The thermometer pages are designed to help children understand the degree of emotion, such as “a little bit happy/angry” to “very, very happy/angry”. Children can then learn that different strategies are needed to “fix” different levels of feelings. It can also be used to help children learn to recognise early more subtle emotions and to use an appropriate strategy before things escalate to higher levels.

Children may begin completing the book with an adult such as a parent, therapist, teacher or SSO. It is ideal if one emotion is done in a session and then the child uses the book at home or school for a week or so, thinking about the target emotion, looking for the emotion in real situations, both in themselves and in others. They can record what they see in the book and discuss it before moving onto another feeling. This will help the child transfer skills learned into real situations.

You can download the printable "feelings book" and other useful resources from Our website.

Children with autism spectrum disorders find understanding, managing and expressing emotions particularly difficult and can benefit from individualised support.

Talking Matters provides speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychology services to kids of all ages in Adelaide, South Australia. To find out more about our team and what we do browse our website and see how we can help your family.

We are also offering social skills groups for school aged children in the July school holidays at our office in Elizabeth Downs, South Australia. To find out more about these groups click here to download a brochure.

There is also more information on our Facebook page, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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