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 3-year-old Arthur is frustrated, he throws things or rolls on the floor and kicks. After a while, he kneels, crosses his arms, and pouts. “There’s no way to reason with him while he’s having a temper tantrum,” says his mom, Nathalie. “Once he’s calmed down, I give him a hug and we talk about what happened. I ask him how else he could have expressed his anger.”

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. Being patient, setting boundaries, and talking things out will help your child develop the ability to think before they act. 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.

Emotions over time

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

Primary emotions, also called basic or universal emotions, are the first that children experience. They include joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and surprise, which appear during the first year of life. Nathalie still remembers the first time she saw her son Arthur express surprise. “He was 6 months old, and I was introducing him to solid foods. At the first spoonful, he looked at me with his eyes wide as saucers and leaned back in his chair. It was so funny!”

Secondary emotions emerge during the second year as your child becomes aware that they’re different from others and that they’re their own person,” explains Dr. Sylvain Coutu, a 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. They might feel shy when they’re the centre of attention, for instance, or jealous when someone has something they want.

Soon after, around the age of 3, children begin to experience secondary emotions—namely, guilt, embarrassment, and pridewhich require an understanding of certain rules, norms, and goals. 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. And if they’re having a hard time learning to ride their tricycle or putting together a tough puzzle, they might feel a sense of pride when they finally succeed.

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 they throw a tantrum, leave the room and tell them you’ll come back when they’ve calmed down. If they’re sad, you can give them a big hug and let them know you’re there for them. 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 distinguish between 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.

There are many ways you can help your little one better cope with their emotions and those of others. Here are a few examples.

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, a professor 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

You are your child’s role model. If you make an effort to control your emotions, your child will tend to do the same. Likewise, it’s hard to insist that they learn to stay calm if you yourself go off the rails at the slightest provocation. Instead, when you’re not happy about something, say out loud what you’ll do to feel better. For example: “I’m disappointed that Martine won’t be coming to dinner, but I’ll watch a good movie instead!”

3. Put your emotions into words

When Émilie told her family that she was expecting a second child, her mother began to cry. Viviane, Émilie’s daughter, was confused. Why was Grandma crying if she was happy? Émilie explained that sometimes, we cry because we’re overjoyed. They’re happy tears! 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.

When a parent is angry
Being a parent isn’t always easy, and you may sometimes run out of patience. If you feel your anger rising, step back for a moment and cool off. (Make sure your child is safe before walking away.) If you lose your temper, you may confuse and frighten your child, and even cause them to feel unsafe, says psychologist Nadia Gagnier.

If your anger does get the upper hand, what should you do? It’s best to apologize to your child and briefly discuss what happened. For example: “I’m sorry I lost my temper earlier. I shouldn’t have yelled. I should have taken a calming breath before I spoke. I’m going to make an effort to stop yelling.” By doing so, you’re showing them how to behave when you hurt someone else’s feelings.

One strategy for reducing your child’s tantrums is to give them clear, consistent boundaries. “If you don’t set limits or you only enforce them some of the time, how you react to your child’s behaviour may vary depending on how you feel,” says Dr. Gagnier. “When you’re in a good mood, you may let them jump on the couch. But when you’re tired or irritable, this same behaviour may cause you to lash out. Your child will be very confused and develop feelings of insecurity.” That’s why it’s best to enforce clear, consistent rules. Your child will know that jumping on the couch is never allowed. “Setting boundaries is like handing your child an instruction manual,” says Dr. Gagnier. “It makes them feel safe.”

4. Take your child’s emotions seriously

If your child is sad, upset, angry, or jealous in a particular situation, 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.

“When I’m mad, I tell my daughters to look at my face,” says Stéphanie. “I ask them if I look angry. I want them to be able to recognize how people feel based on their expressions.” Stéphanie’s 3-year-old daughter, Auriane, also enjoys guessing what the characters in her books are feeling. 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

Arthur, aged 3, loves the Kirikou animated movies, but he’s afraid of the witch. To feel safe, he repeats this mantra: “The witch is far away. She can’t come here.” It’s a technique his parents taught him. “Our son is also afraid of monsters. We tell him that monsters can’t come into the house because it’s inside a love bubble. It’s a little phrase he can use if he gets scared.” On her end, Stéphanie has taught her daughters to take deep breaths when they’re angry.

7. Teach your child how to express anger appropriately

Erwan, aged 3, sometimes gets angry at his 16-month-old brother, Axel—like when he blocks his view of the TV or topples his block towers. To prevent Erwan’s tantrums, his mother, Gaëlle, is teaching him to verbalize his frustrations, such as by saying, “No, Axel, back up so you’re not blocking the TV,” or “Don’t touch my blocks.” Gaëlle also encourages Erwan to play on a large table, out of reach of his little brother. Why not find your own strategies to avoid your child’s common triggers? You can also try to distract your little one if you sense that their anger is getting out of control. To prevent tantrums, Stéphanie is teaching her daughters to go someplace quiet, like their room, when they get angry.

What can you do if your child starts to scream, kick, or roll on the floor? “When your child is throwing a tantrum, wait for the storm to pass,” advises Dr. Gagnier. “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 your child quiets 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; 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.
  • Developing emotional competence will help your child do well in school and build better relationships with others.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, February 2014
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist
Updated: May 2022


Photos: GettyImages/malija, GettyImages/Halfpoint, GettyImages/Wavebreakmedia, GettyImages/Strelciuc Dumitru and Maxim Morin (last two)


For parents

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For kids

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  • “Jeu de cartes : jouons et régulons nos émotions” card game. Publications educatout. www.educatout.com