Our children's emotions

Joy, sadness, anger, jealousy… In just a few short years, your child will have to learn how to deal with a panoply of emotions. What can you do to help?


Emotions or feelings?

Although there are many similarities between emotions and feelings, these words are not interchangeable.

By Nathalie Vallerand

When 4-year-old Livia is frustrated, she cries, screams, and stamps her feet. Sometimes, she even throws things. “When she gets like that, it’s hard to reason with her,” says her mother, Magali Lo Bono, who has two other daughters aged 6 months and 6 years. “I wait for her to calm down, then I give her a hug and ask her what she can do the next time she feels the volcano is about to erupt.”

It’s normal for your child to sometimes have strong, full-body reactions to their emotions. That’s because they haven’t yet learned how to express them or respond to them appropriately. As they grow, they will be able to name what they’re feeling and have an easier time staying in control when they get emotional.

The difference between emotions and feelings

Although emotions and feelings are similar, they’re not exactly the same. Emotions are spontaneous reactions to a situation. They can have physical manifestations (e.g., pallor, flushing, restlessness, increased heart rate and breathing, sweating) and psychological manifestations (e.g., negative or positive thoughts, mood changes) that last for a short time. For instance, joy, fear, and anger are emotions.

Feelings, on the other hand, are longer emotional states that evolve over time. Some examples are love, hate, trust, distrust, guilt, responsibility, shame, insecurity, and happiness.

Despite their differences, emotions and feelings are closely related. Feelings cause all kinds of emotions, and emotions can trigger feelings. For example, if your child is scared of the neighbour’s barking dog (emotion), they might later develop a sense of insecurity (feeling) that’s triggered by the mere sight of a dog.

Podcast episode: “Familles à la une: spécial émotions”
Does your child sometimes get worked up, become angry, or throw tantrums? It can be hard for them to deal with their emotions. Six parents share their tips and experiences in this special edition of our Familles à la une podcast (in French), hosted by Maude Goyer.

Emotions over time

Primary emotions, also called basic or universal emotions, are the first that children experience.

The first emotions children experience are primary emotions, also called basic or universal emotions. They include joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and surprise, all of which appear during the first year of life. Alexandre Proschek remembers the first time his son Justin, now 3 years old, felt surprise. “He was 6 months old and had never eaten an egg before. He took his first bite, and his eyes just popped. He looked so surprised!” Magali Lo Bono describes how happy her 6-month-old daughter Loane is to leave her crib when she wakes up. “She bounces with joy!”

Secondary emotions emerge during the second year of life as your child becomes aware that they’re different from others and that they’re their own person,” explains Dr. Sylvain Coutu, associate professor of psychoeducation and psychology at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, who has conducted research on the socialization of emotions.

This realization leads your child to experience emotions related to self-awareness, such as shyness and jealousy. For instance, they might feel jealous when someone has something they want, or shy when they’re the centre of attention. At age 3, Ian was shy around other children. “He had a mild speech disorder and he lacked self-confidence as a result,” says his mother, Irma-Nelsy Murillo Betancourt. “Now, at age 6, he speaks well and is very sociable.”

Around the age of 3, children begin to experience secondary emotions, which require understanding certain rules, norms, and goals. These emotions include guilt, embarrassment, and pride. For example, if your child knows they aren’t allowed to draw on the walls, but they do it anyway, they might feel guilty about breaking the rules. Like the time Livia played with makeup when she was 2½ years old. “When I caught her, she hung her head and looked so ashamed,” Magali recalls. “It was hard to keep from laughing. She had makeup all over!”

Alexandre also notes how proud his 3-year-old son Justin is each time he succeeds at something new. “The first time he zipped up his coat all by himself, he asked for a high-five,” says Alexandre. “He was so proud!”

As your child gets older and learns to think for themself, they’ll come to view and interpret situations differently, which will affect their emotional responses. For example, whereas at age 3 your child might be terrified by the sight of someone dressed up as a monster, by age 5 they may no longer feel afraid, having realized that the person is wearing a costume. Over time, kids also get better at controlling their emotions as they learn to make sense of the world around them.

Temper tantrums
Whether they’re positive or negative, a child’s emotions can sometimes bubble over and turn into wild outbursts. Has your child ever gotten so excited that they started shouting, jumping, and running around? Have they ever been so upset that they threw a temper tantrum, complete with hitting, biting, and ear-splitting shrieks? Children behave like this because they haven’t yet learned to control their emotions and express them appropriately. “Young children tend to express their emotions through non-verbal communication,” says Dr. Coutu. “But as they develop language skills and learn to talk about how they feel, they get a better handle on their emotions.” In the meantime, whenever your child has an emotional outburst, start by simply naming what they’re feeling, without judgment. If your child is distressed, pick them up, give them a cuddle, and just be present. Then, you can suggest things that might help them feel better, such as taking some deep breaths or doing a fun activity.

Decoding emotions in others

During their first year, babies begin to perceive the emotions of those around them, even though they don’t understand them yet.

In addition to developing their own emotions, your child will gradually learn to make sense of the emotions of others. During their first year, babies begin to perceive the emotions of those around them, even though they don’t understand them yet. “Babies are sensitive to their parents’ emotions from birth,” says psychologist Dr. Nadia Gagnier. Around 4 months, they can feel certain emotions, like happiness and sadness.

Around 1 year, they can sense what their parents are feeling and adapt their behaviour accordingly. “If you’re sad and worried about leaving your child at daycare, they may start crying—not because they don’t like daycare, but because they’re reacting to your emotions,” says Dr. Gagnier.

By age 3, most toddlers can recognize expressions of happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. However, they may still make mistakes. For example, they may confuse emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. “Children recognize facial expressions with increasing accuracy and speed, up to about age 10,” says Dr. Catherine Herba, a professor in the Department of Psychology at UQAM and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre. With your support, your child will continue to refine this skill into their teenage years.

Emotion regulation

As children get older, they get better at recognizing emotions in themselves and others.

You’ve probably heard a lot about emotion regulation, but you may be less familiar with the importance of developing emotional competence. Knowing how to manage your emotions is only one of three emotional competence skills.

The other two are understanding your emotions and knowing how to express them. By developing their emotional competence as a whole, your child will eventually become more skilled at regulating their emotions. “When a child understands their emotions and knows how to express them, they can control them and manage their intensity to cope better in a variety situations,” explains Dr. Sylvain Coutu.

Developing emotional competence at an early age gives kids a head start in life. Scientific studies have shown that emotional competence has the following effects:

  • It helps kids succeed in school and build positive relationships. “A child’s ability to regulate their own emotional responses and understand the emotions of others has been associated with better academic performance and social-emotional development,” says Dr. Herba.
  • It helps kids recognize the emotions of others and adapt their behaviour to maintain positive relationships. For example, if their friend is angry, a child will know how to respond to avoid making the situation worse.
  • It helps kids successfully resolve conflict and develop empathy.
  • It reduces the risk of abuse and bullying.

Of course, some children struggle to develop emotional competence. Namely, children who have been abused or neglected, who suffer from anxiety, or who respond negatively to change and novelty may have more difficulty than others.

How to help your child

Adopt these strategies to help your child better cope with their emotions and those of others.

With your help, your little one will learn to recognize different emotions and put their feelings into words. Little by little, they’ll learn how to respond or adapt their behaviour when they experience an emotion. For example, they’ll be able to tell you they’re angry, instead of yelling or hitting.

Here are a few tips to help your child better regulate their emotions and respond to those of others.

1. Meet your child’s needs

Babies can sometimes cry a lot. If your little one is distressed, it’s important that you respond by comforting them and offering appropriate care. “If no one comforts them, they may develop feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and low self-esteem,” says Dr. Sylvain Coutu, associate professor in the department of psychoeducation and psychology at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. “As a result, they may have a harder time regulating their emotions and responding to those of others.”

2. Teach by example

If you make an effort to regulate your emotions, your child will tend to do the same. When you’re not happy about something, say out loud what you’ll do to feel better. For example, you might say: “I’m disappointed my friend Rayan won’t be coming to dinner, but I’ll get to read my new book instead.”

If you feel your anger rising, step away for a moment and cool off. (Make sure your child is safe before walking away.) If you’ve really lost your temper, apologize to your child and briefly discuss what happened. For example: “I overreacted just now. I shouldn’t have yelled like that. I’m sorry, I should have taken a calming breath before I spoke. I’m going to make an effort to stop yelling.”

3. Put your emotions into words

Hear Kittycat sing 9 songs about emotions. Listen here!

Try to get into the habit of naming your child’s emotions as well as your own. For instance: “I can see that you’re angry because your brother won’t lend you his toy truck,” or “I’m sad because Grandpa is sick.” Your child will learn from you and start to put their feelings into words. No need to wait until your child can talk! If you start as soon as they’re born, they’ll acquire an emotional vocabulary as their language skills develop.

4. Take your child’s emotions seriously

If your child is sad, upset, angry, or jealous, try to acknowledge their emotions. They’ll feel comforted and understood, and they’ll be less likely to express themself in problematic ways (e.g., pinching their little sister when you’re feeding her). Of course, if your child does act inappropriately, it’s important to tell them.

5. Help your child identify emotions

Your child will have an easier time identifying emotions in others if you teach them how to read emotional body language. For instance, we frown when we’re angry and smile when we’re happy.

Alexandre and his son often play at imitating emotions. “I put on an angry, happy, or sad face then ask Justin to imitate me,” he says. “Then I name the emotion: ‘Oh! You’re angry! You’re happy!’ He loves it.”

This is another good exercise, because knowing how to read faces will help your child relate to others. They’ll be able to adapt their behaviour to each situation.

Dr. Gagnier says that, during storytime, it’s a good idea to encourage your child to talk about the characters’ emotions. “Ask them how a particular character is feeling or what they could do to be less sad or scared,” she suggests. Together, you can also create a feelings scrapbook filled with magazine cut-outs of faces that show different emotions.

6. Give your child tips on how to manage big feelings

When Ian was 3 or 4, he would sometimes feel afraid of the dark or of ghosts at bedtime. His mother, Irma-Nelsy, is Colombian. She tells us, “I taught him to soothe himself by saying a prayer or singing a song.” She also encourages Ian to share his feelings when he’s sad. Now, when he feels down, Ian hugs a stuffed animal and says that it’s sad, too. He also seeks out his big brother, who is 21, for comfort and a hug.

7. Teach your child how to express anger appropriately

Magali tells her 4- and 6-year-old daughters to scream into a pillow or squeeze a stuffed animal really hard when they feel they’re getting angry. Justin’s parents also try to avoid certain frustrations. For example, they let him know what he’ll be doing next. That way, he doesn’t get angry when it’s time to stop an activity he loves. His dad, Alexandre, explains, “We crouch down to his level and tell him we’ll read one story, then it’s bedtime. Then we ask: ‘How many stories will we read? And what happens next?’ Having him repeat it makes him more willing to cooperate.”

“If it’s too late, and your child is already screaming and throwing a tantrum, wait for the storm to pass,” psychologist Nadia Gagnier advises. “Trying to reason with them will only make the situation worse.” If you raise your voice, your child will only yell louder. Plus, you might frighten them. The best strategy is to stay nearby, keep calm, and wait until they quiet down. Then, give them a big hug and ask about what made them angry.

Keep in mind, however, that you shouldn’t give in to their demands when they throw a tantrum; otherwise, they’ll learn that anger is an effective way to get what they want.

8. Help your child develop empathy

Empathy—the ability to recognize the emotions of others and put yourself in their shoes—develops around ages 4 to 6. However, children may begin to show empathy much earlier, when they recognize an emotion they’ve witnessed in someone else. “Some 18-month-olds will try to console a friend by offering them a stuffed animal or giving them a hug,” says Dr. Coutu. He says it’s important to praise your child’s empathetic behaviour, because it shows that they care about others. You can also point out how your child’s behaviour makes others feel. They’ll learn that their actions have consequences, and that not everyone has the same wants or needs. Finally, you can encourage your little one to do something thoughtful. For instance, they can make a drawing for their grandparents or lend a toy to a friend.

Cultural differences and emotions

A child’s emotions are coloured by the culture in which they grow up. Take disgust: this emotion is universal, but its triggers are linked to culture. For example, some foods that tend to make North Americans gag are considered tasty in other countries. How emotions are expressed also varies from culture to culture. In some countries, crying in public is frowned upon, whereas in others, it’s perfectly normal to weep in the middle of the street.

What’s more, expressed emotion can differ across families who share the same culture. “A family is a microculture,” says Dr. Gagnier. Each has its own values, points of view, and ways of doing things. All this affects how they experience emotions.

For example, some families express their joy and sorrow loudly, while others keep these feelings private. Gender is also a factor. Some parents will tend to be more tolerant of their son’s anger than their daughter’s, for instance.

As parents, it’s important that we take the time to consider our own family culture. Are we allowing our child to express their full range of emotions? Are we accepting their emotions, no matter how intense, even when we find them baffling or irrational?

Things to keep in mind
  • Joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and surprise are the first emotions your baby feels.
  • When your little one understands and can express their emotions, they’re better able to manage them.
  • Learning to regulate their emotions will help your little one develop strong relationships with others.
Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, May-June 2023 and February 2014
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist
Updated: May 2023



For parents

  • Gueguen, Catherine. Pour une enfance heureuse : repenser l’éducation à la lumière des dernières découvertes sur le cerveau. Éditions Robert Laffont, 2014, 304 pp.
  • Jean, Manon. Ajuster la météo intérieure des enfants : guide pratique pour favoriser la relaxation à la garderie, à l’école et à la maison. Éditions C.A.R.D, 2013, 127 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. J’ai tout essayé! Opposition, pleurs et crises de rage: traverser sans dommage la période de 1 à 5 ans. Paris, Marabout, 2019, 252 pp.
  • Bourque, Solène. Les grandes émotions des tout-petits: comprendre et soutenir les apprentissages émotionnels chez les 2 à 6 ans. Éditions Midi trente, 2020, 144 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. Au cœur des émotions de l’enfant. Éditions Marabout, 2013, 320 pp.
  • Parent, Nathalie. Enfants stressés! Éditions Michel Lafon Canada, 2019, 240 pp.

For kids

  • Latulippe, Martine, and Nathalie Parent. La colère de Fabien. Mammouth rose, 2020, 32 pp.
  • Latulippe, Martine, and Nathalie Parent. La tristesse de Mahée. Mammouth rose, 2020, 32 pp.
  • Latulippe, Martine, and Nathalie Parent. La peur de Mathis. Mammouth rose, 2020, 32 pp.
  • Llenas, Anna, The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018, 40 pp.
  • Bélineau, Nathalie, Les émotions. Illustrated by Christelle Mekdjian, Fleurus, 2020, 20 pp.
  • Cain, Janan. The Way I Feel. Illustrated by Janan Cain, Parenting Press, 2005, 18 pp.
  • Monette, Marylène. Les combats de Ti-Cœur. Illustrated by Marion Arbona, Éditions Fonfon, Histoires de vivre series, 2013, 32 pp.
  • Witek, Jo. Dans mon petit cœur. Illustrated by Christine Roussey, Éditions De La Martinière Jeunesse, 2013, 30 pp.
  • Dufresne, Rhéa. Ma journée, mes humeurs. Illustrated by Jacinthe Chevalier, Éditions de l’Isatis, 2013, 24 pp.
  • Bourque, Solène. Mini Loup vit un tourbillon d’émotions. Éditions Midi trente, 2017, 48 pp.
  • “Affiche du retour au calme” poster. Éditions Midi trente.
  • “Jeu de cartes : jouons et régulons nos émotions” card game. Publications educatout. www.educatout.com

Photos : GettyImages/malija, Nicolas St-Germain et Maxim Morin.