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?

Even if there are many similarities between emotions and feelings, these words define slightly different concepts.

By Nathalie Vallerand

When 3-year-old Arthur is frustrated, he throws things or launches himself onto the floor and stomps his feet. After a while, he’ll get up on his knees, cross his arms over his chest and pout. “There’s no point in trying to reason with him when he’s in the middle of a tantrum,” says his mom, Nathalie. “When he’s calmed down, I take him in my arms and we talk about what happened. I ask him how he could have expressed his anger differently.”

It’s normal for your child to sometimes react strongly, using his entire body to express his emotions. It’s because for him, these emotions are new. He must therefore learn how to react to them appropriately. As he gets older, he’ll learn to control himself and to put words to what he’s feeling, but this can take time.

Even if there are many similarities between emotions and feelings, these words define slightly different concepts. Emotions are spontaneous reactions to a situation. They can manifest themselves in physical ways (paleness, blushing, agitation, accelerated heart beat or respiration, sweating, etc.) and psychological ways (negative or positive thoughts, mood changes) over a short period of time. Joy, fear and anger are such examples.

Feelings, on the other hand, represent an emotional state that lasts longer and evolves over time. Feelings develop, grow and sometimes end up disappearing. Some examples include love, hate, trust, distrust, insecurity and happiness.

While they are different, emotions and feelings are closely linked. Feelings allow you to experience all sorts of emotions, and conversely, emotions can generate feelings. For example, if your toddler was afraid of the neighbour’s dog (emotion) because it barked at him, he may end developing insecurity (feeling) at the sight of a dog.

The “bacon dance”
Any emotion your child is feeling (anger, fear, joy…) may give rise to disturbing behaviour. Is your child ever so happy that he gets overexcited, screams, jumps and runs all over the place? Or so angry that he does the “bacon dance”—flip-flops around on the floor like bacon frying in a skillet—hits, bites or screams so loud your eardrums nearly burst? It’s that he still hasn’t learned how to control his emotions and externalize them in an acceptable manner. “In young children, emotions are mostly expressed in non-verbal ways,” notes Sylvain Coutu, psycho-education and psychology professor. “But as they develop language and learn to talk about what they are feeling, these emotions become easier to manage.” In the meantime, when your child expresses his emotions in an excessive manner, you can step in and try to guide him towards less disturbing behaviour, such as roaring like a lion instead of screaming, or squeezing his fists tight as an alternative to throwing things.

Emotions over time

Primary emotions, also called basic or universal emotions, are the first ones your child will experience.

Primary emotions, also called basic or universal emotions, are the first ones your child will experience. The 6 main ones appear during the first year of life: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise. Nathalie still remembers the first time she saw Arthur show surprise. “He was 6-months old, and it was the first time I was giving him cereal. I offered him the first spoonful, he looked at me, opened his eyes wide and backed up in his chair. It was so funny!”

Secondary or mixed emotions appear between 15 and 24 months old as your child becomes aware that he’s different from others and that he is his own person, explains Sylvain Coutu, psycho-education and psychology professor at Université du Québec en Outaouais who leads studies on emotional development in children. This discovery allows your toddler to feel emotions related to self-awareness such as shyness and jealousy. He may feel shy when he understands that people are paying attention to him, and jealous when he realizes that others have what he wants.

A little later, sometime during his third year, he’ll experiment with secondary emotions that require an understanding of rules, standards and goals to reach. This is the case for emotions such as guilt, embarrassment and pride. If, for example, your child knows he mustn’t draw on the walls and does so anyway, he may feel guilt. And if he succeeds in riding his tricycle or assembling a big puzzle after putting in a lot of effort, he will feel pride.

As you child grows and develops his thought processes, he will perceive and interpret situations differently, and this will have an effect on his emotional reactions. For example, your 3-year-old toddler may be petrified if he sees someone disguised as a monster, but at 5 years old, he will no longer be afraid because he understands that it’s a disguise. With time, as he develops a greater understanding of the world he lives in, your child will also become much more skilled at controlling his emotions.

Decoding emotions in others

During her first year, she will begin to perceive the emotions around her even if she still doesn’t understand what they mean.

In parallel with the development of her emotions, your child also learns to decode those in others. During her first year, she will begin to perceive the emotions around her even if she still doesn’t understand what they mean. “From birth, babies are sensitive to their parents’ emotions,” notes psychologist Nadia Gagnier. “Towards 4 months old, they can decipher certain emotions such as joy and sadness. At about one, they can adapt their behaviour to the emotion they observe in their parents. If you are unhappy or worried about leaving your child at daycare, she may start to cry, not because she doesn’t like to go, but because she feels what you’re feeling,” adds the psychologist.

At 3 years old, most toddlers can read joy, sadness, fear and anger in faces, but they still make mistakes. They can, for example, confuse emotions like sadness, anger and fear. “Until about the age of 10, a child gets increasingly faster and more accurate at recognizing facial expressions,” says Catherine Herba, UQAM Psychology Department professor and researcher at the CHU Sainte- Justine Research Centre. With your support, your child will hone this ability up until adolescence.

Controlling her emotions

As they grow, children get better at recognizing their own emotions, as well as those in others.

We often hear about managing emotions, but little about the importance of developing emotional competence. The fact is, managing your emotions is only one of the 3 steps necessary to acquire emotional competence, which also include expressing and recognizing emotions. It’s the development of this ability as a whole that slowly allows your child to better manage her emotions. “When a child understands emotions and knows how to express them, she can control them and adjust their intensity to better face various situations,” explains Sylvain Coutu.

A child with emotional competence has a head start in life. Scientific studies show that this ability actually:

  • promotes academic achievement, in addition to fostering positive relationships with others. “Emotional competence helps you better react to negative and disturbing emotions as well as to difficulties,” says Catherine Herba;
  • helps children recognize emotions in others and modify their behaviour accordingly to maintain harmonious relationships. If your child’s friend is angry, your child will know how to adapt her behaviour to avoid her friend getting even angrier;
  • helps children become better at resolving conflicts and more inclined to show empathy.

Nevertheless, some children have a harder time developing emotional competence. We see this in children who were mistreated or neglected, as well as children who are anxious or who react negatively to change and novelty.

How to help your child

There are several strategies to help your child learn how to deal with her emotions and those of others.

There are several strategies to help your child learn how to deal with her emotions and those of others, and they can apply to boys and girls alike.

1. Meet her needs.

Babies sometimes cry a lot. It’s therefore important to be there to respond to their distress by soothing them and seeing to their needs. “If a baby isn’t comforted, she may experience a sense of insecurity and stress, and also develop low self-esteem,” says Sylvain Coutu. “It then becomes more difficult for her to manage her emotions and pay attention to the emotions of others around her.”

2. Set an example.

You’re a model for your child. If you make an effort to channel your emotions, she will tend to do the same. However, it will be hard for you to ask her to stop having temper tantrums if you get angry for the slightest reason. When the situation warrants it, you can, for example, express out loud what you do to feel better when something bothers you: “I’m disappointed that Martine isn’t coming for supper, but I’ll watch a good movie instead.”

3. Put words to emotions.

When Émilie told her family that she was expecting a second child, her mother started crying. Émilie’s daughter, Viviane, couldn’t understand how her grandmother could cry and look happy at the same time. Émilie therefore explained to her that sometimes we’re so happy, we cry. You can do the same and name your emotions as well as those you observe in your child: “I see that you’re angry because your brother refused to lend you his truck,” “I’m sad because grandpa is sick,” and so on. This helps your child learn how to verbalize what she’s feeling. And you don’t need to wait until she starts talking; you can start as soon as she’s born. She’ll learn the vocabulary of emotions as she develops her language skills!

When a parent gets angry
“Parenthood isn’t always a walk in the park, and sometimes we lose our patience. If you feel yourself getting angry, the best thing to do is to step away for a moment before you explode (making sure your child is safe first). If not, you risk unsettling and scaring your child, in addition to making her feel insecure,” explains Nadia Gagnier.
But what can you do if you get really angry? In this case, the best thing is to apologize to your child and briefly go over what happened. For example: “I got a little too angry before. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to yell anymore.” By reacting this way, you become a model by showing her how to behave when you hurt someone.
One strategy to avoid angry outbursts is to set clear and consistent limits for your child. Gagnier explains: “If you aren’t consistent in applying limits or if you don’t set any at all, your reaction to your child’s behaviour can vary depending on your state of mind. When you’re feeling good, you let her jump on the sofa without a word. But the day you’re feeling tired or are in a bad mood, you get angry with her. She won’t understand why and this creates insecurity.” This is why it’s better to always set clear limits and to remain consistent in applying them. Your child will then know that she’s never allowed to jump on the sofa. “For her, limits are a sort of user’s manual on how to behave, and this gives her a sense of security,” says Gagnier.

4. Take her emotions seriously.

It’s good to tell your child that you understand that she can feel sad, upset, angry or jealous in a given situation. It will comfort her and make her feel understood. She will have less of a tendency to express her emotions in inappropriate ways, such as by pinching her little sister while you’re feeding her. Of course, if her behaviour is inappropriate, you need to tell her.

Your child will recognize emotions even better if you draw her attention to the body language that accompanies them: furrowed eyebrows when someone is mad, smiles when they are happy, etc.

5. Help her to recognize emotions.

“When I’m angry, I tell my daughters to look at my face and ask them if I look angry,” says Stéphanie. “I want them to be able to see what people are feeling by looking at their faces.” Her 3-year-old daughter, Auriane, loves trying to guess what characters are feeling in her books. This is actually a good idea because knowing how to read faces promotes positive social interactions by giving the child cues that will help her adapt her behaviour to any given situation.
Psychologist Nadia Gagnier suggests taking advantage of story time to have your child talk about the emotions experienced by the various characters. “Ask her how such and such character feels, what that character could do to feel less sad, or less afraid, etc.” You can also create an album of emotions with your child from different faces you cut out of magazines.

6. Give her tricks to manage her emotions.

3-year-old Arthur really enjoys watching the Kirikou movies, but he’s afraid of the witch. So he repeats to himself: “The witch is far away. She can’t come here.” His parents taught him how to reassure himself this way. “Our son is also afraid of monsters. We tell him that monsters can’t come into our house because it’s protected by a bubble of love. It’s a little mantra that he can repeat to himself when he’s feeling afraid.” For her part, Stéphanie reminds her daughters to take deep breaths when they feel anger welling up inside.

7. Teach her to better express her anger.

3-year-old Erwan tends to get angry when his 16-month-old brother, Axel, stands in front of the television or destroys something he’s built. To prevent his tantrums, his mother, Gaëlle, taught him to say what’s bothering him: “No, Axel. You’re blocking the TV. Move.” Or “Don’t touch my train tracks.” She also suggested that he play on a bigger table that’s out of his little brother’s reach. You, too, can give your child strategies that will help her manage the recurring sources of her frustration. Another trick is to distract her when you feel her anger is building. Stéphanie tries to get her daughters used to stepping away from a situation (by going to their rooms, for example) before exploding.

Too late? Your child is already screaming, rolling on the ground, stomping her feet? “When your child is having a major tantrum, wait until the storm passes,” advises Gagnier. “If you try to reason with her, you’ll only add fuel to the fire.” And if you raise your voice, she’ll only raise hers louder and you risk scaring her in the process. Ideally, you should stay close by, remain calm and wait until the worst is over. Then, you can take her in your arms and get her to talk about what made her so angry. However, it’s better not to give in, or the message you will give her is that her anger is an effective way of getting what she wants.

8. Help her to develop empathy.

Empathy, the ability to notice the feelings and emotions of another person and put yourself in that person’s shoes, develops between the ages of about 4 and 6. Nevertheless, children can begin to express empathy much sooner, when they recognize an emotion they have already experienced in another person. “At 18 months old, some children will console a friend by offering a stuffed animal or giving a hug,” notes Sylvain Coutu. He believes that it’s important to recognize your child’s act of empathy because this shows that she is concerned about others. It’s also a good idea to draw her attention to how others react to her behaviour. She’ll realize that her actions can affect others and that other people might have needs and desires that are different from hers. Lastly, you can encourage your child to make someone happy by doing a little something special for them (e.g.: making a drawing for grandpa and grandma, lending a toy to a friend, etc.).

Cultural differences and emotions

A child’s emotions are coloured by the culture she is brought up in. Take disgust, for example. This emotion is universal, but what provokes it is influenced by culture. While in North America, for example, a plate of grilled caterpillar and chicken feet would without a doubt elicit a reaction of disgust, this wouldn’t be the case in other parts of the world. The expression of emotions also varies according to culture. In some places, openly expressing your grief in public is poorly viewed, while in others, it’s normal to cry your heart out in front of everyone.

And just as the culture of your country of origin influences how you express your emotions, so are there differences between families from a common culture. “A family is a microculture,” explains Gagnier. “Each one has its own values, ways of perceiving situations and ways of doing things. All this has an influence on their emotions.”

For example, if in some families, joy or grief is expressed loudly, others may opt for a more reserved approach. Differences have also been noted by gender. In North America, parents tend to be more tolerant of anger in boys than in girls. And they will accept tears from the daughters much more readily than from their sons.

As a parent, it’s therefore important to take a moment to examine your own family culture. Do you really allow your children to express all their emotions, regardless of gender? Are you able to accept that they may experience certain emotions, even if you don’t understand them or believe them to be irrational?

  • Joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise are the first emotions your baby will feel.
  • Once she knows how to express her emotions and is able to understand them better, your child will be able to control them and adjust their intensity to better face various situations.
  • Emotional competence will make it easier for your child to succeed at school in addition to ensure she experiences positive social interactions.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, February 2014
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist


Photos (in order): GettyImages/malija, GettyImages/Halfpoint, GettyImages/Wavebreakmedia, GettyImages/Strelciuc Dumitru and Maxim Morin