How to teach your child to control and appropriately express their emotions
Your child experiences different emotions every day, such as joy, sadness, anger, and fear. It can be hard for them to understand and deal with their feelings. They need your help to learn to recognize, verbalize, and get a handle on their emotions.
Your child’s emotional development
Emotions are spontaneous reactions to situations we experience. They don’t develop all at once. The first emotions your child feels are called primary emotions. They appear during baby’s first year and include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise.
Secondary emotions appear between the ages of 15 and 24 months as your toddler becomes aware that they are different from others and are a separate person. This discovery awakens self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment and jealousy.
Your child will gradually experience other secondary emotions, such as guilt, shame, and pride, which require an understanding of 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. If they try hard to finish a big puzzle and succeed, they may feel proud.
The benefits of learning to control your emotions
It’s important to teach your child to recognize their emotions and put what they’re feeling into words. This will help them gain better control over their emotions. Little by little, they’ll learn how to react or adapt their behaviour when they experience an emotion. For example, instead of yelling or hitting when they get angry, they’ll learn to calm down on their own.
A child who can control their emotions will react better to whatever life throws at them. Good self-regulation also helps kids get along with others, resolve conflicts better, and succeed in school.
Conversely, children who struggle with managing their emotions will have more difficulty dealing with everyday situations. When feelings of sadness, anger, fear, or frustration build up, kids can also become aggressive or anxious, which can lead to relationship difficulties.
Helping your child identify their emotions
For your child, the first step in learning how to manage their emotions is recognizing what they feel. Here’s what you can do to help.
- Start talking about emotions with your child when they’re still a baby. Name the emotions that you observe in them, such as joy, sadness, anger, and fear. For instance, you can say: “You’re crying! Are you sad because Mommy is leaving?”
- Talk about increasingly complex emotions as they get older. Try bringing up emotions such as disappointment, guilt, and jealousy as early as age 2 or 3. For instance, you can say: “You hit your brother earlier, and now you feel bad. It’s because you saw that it made him sad, isn’t it?” Tell them that the emotion they feel is called guilt.
- Point out the body language associated with emotions. Use books, posters, and games to show your child illustrations of characters expressing different feelings. Point out that we frown when we’re angry, smile when we’re happy, cry when we’re sad, open our eyes wide when we’re scared, etc.
- Have fun together imitating different emotions in front of a mirror. Your child will learn more about themself and how they express their own emotions. You can also help them create an emotions scrapbook using cut-outs of faces from magazines.
- Teach your child to recognize what’s happening inside them when they experience an emotion. Name the physical signs they display. For example, you might say: “You were yelling and clenching your fists when you saw your sister knock over your block tower because you were angry” or “You started trembling and clung to me when you saw the dog running toward you because you were afraid.”
Why help your child name their emotions?
- Ask your child about how they felt after an emotional experience. Depending on their age, they may not give a detailed answer, but you can ask how they felt in their heart or stomach. They might say that their heart hurt or that their stomach was in knots, which is a very good start.
- Help your child recognize and name the emotion they’re experiencing. Name the emotions you observe. For example, say: “You’re happy you and Grandma are going to the zoo together” or “You were upset that your brother took your toy without asking.” Next, encourage them to name their emotions using “I” statements. For example: “I’m sad I can’t go to the park” or “I’m afraid of the big dog.”
- Talk about the emotions that explain some of your own reactions. For example, if you acted impatiently when preparing dinner, talk to your child about it later. Explain that you lost your patience and try to name what influenced your behaviour. For example: “I had a hard day at work and was very tired. Dinner was taking a long time to prepare, and everyone was hungry. I was feeling stressed.”
Helping your child regulate their emotions
Before the age of 5, children aren’t able to manage their emotions alone. They’re still impulsive and have difficulty controlling their reactions. They may break things, hit people, or run around wildly out of anger or excitement. Even past the age of 5, it’s hard for them to understand their feelings and react appropriately.
Your role is to not only give your child room to experience and express their emotions, but also show them how to manage them. Here are some tips on what to do:
- Let them express how they feel without judgment. For example, if they’re having a tantrum, stay with them and try to remain calm. Don’t attempt to have a conversation while they’re worked up or if they’re crying uncontrollably. Simply comfort them, give them a hug, and wait for them to calm down before asking what happened.
- Help them verbalize their emotions. Ask questions to find out what triggered the reaction, such as “Are you excited to go to your cousin’s house?” or “Are you sad because Grandma left?” An angry reaction, for instance, might be masking feelings of rejection or of frustration at being bad at a game.
- Tell your child that what they’re feeling is normal and that you understand why they’re happy, sad, or angry. This will reassure and comfort them and make them feel understood.
- Take the time to listen to your child even if you’re in a hurry or preoccupied. A child who feels heard and understood will work through their emotions and move on more quickly.
- Encourage family discussions about emotions. For example, during dinner, talk about situations that make you happy or angry. Then ask your child what makes them happy or sad. This will get them used to talking about their day-to-day experiences.
- Talk about emotions you experienced as a child. For example: “My little sister used to grab my toys too when I was your age. It made me angry, and I pulled her hair sometimes. But I eventually learned other ways to respond, because instead of helping things, my reaction just made us fight more.”
- Offer strategies for managing their emotions. Have these conversations when your child is calm so that they remember what to do when they get emotional. You can show them how to take a deep breath and pretend they’re blowing out a candle as a way to calm down and get control of their emotions.
- Encourage your child to find their own strategies for managing emotions. For example, write down a list of things they can do when they feel angry (e.g., draw, hug a stuffed animal, run). Let them suggest any ideas that come to mind Then, decide together which strategies might work best. Tell them they can pick a strategy from their list anytime they feel angry.
What should you do if your child is crying or frustrated? Learn how to help them manage their emotions.
- Try defusing the situation when your child overreacts. For example, if they burst into tears because they can’t get their figurine to stand up, stay positive and tell them there’s a solution. Help them calm down and get past their outburst. For example, work together to find a way to make the figurine stay upright.
- Be a role model and talk about your emotions. For instance, you can say: “I’m happy to see my good friend again” or “I’m sad because Grandpa is in the hospital.” Talk about what you plan to do to calm down: “I’m disappointed that Samia won’t be coming to dinner, but I’ll watch a good movie instead!”
- Admit when you’ve overreacted. You can tell your child: “I shouldn’t have slammed the door. I was angry, but that wasn’t a good way to show it.” Describe what you’ll do the next time you get upset. This shows your child that they can learn and are allowed to make mistakes.
- Seek professional help (e.g., contact a psychologist or social worker) if you’re having difficulty managing your own emotions. Doing so will also give you tools to help your child.
Strategies for expressing emotions
There are several strategies you can use to express an emotion, and many will work for more than one. Your child will need to try a few to figure out which ones work best for them. Here are some strategies you can suggest:
- To express joy, your child can colour, run and jump outside, or call a grandparent to talk about why they’re happy.
- To express sadness, your child can hug their favourite stuffed toy, spend some time alone in their room, or come talk to you about what’s upset them. Remind them that crying is also a normal way to express sadness.
- When your child is afraid, suggest that they snuggle with you and think of ways to make their fear go away. It doesn’t matter whether they’re afraid of something real, such as a big dog, something imaginary, like the Big Bad Wolf.
- If your child is angry, they can take slow, deep breaths, punch a pillow, throw paper balls, or scribble on a piece of paper.
- When your child learns to write, they can confide in a diary. Encourage them to keep at it even if they write phonetically or make grammar and spelling mistakes. Tell them they can write whatever they want in their diary and that no one else will read it. It’s okay if they use harsh words to describe their feelings toward others (e.g., if they’re jealous of their sister).
As your child gets older and develops their language skills, they’ll become more skilled at managing their emotions. However, if you feel that your child’s inability to manage their emotions or impulsiveness is interfering with their life at home, at daycare, or at school, causing frequent conflict with others, or making them deeply unhappy, talk to their doctor. You can also contact your CLSC, which will refer you to the appropriate health care professional.
Things to keep in mind
By learning to manage their emotions, your child will react better to everyday situations and have an easier time getting along with others.
Talk to your child about the emotions you observe and experience to help them put what they feel into words.
Get your child used to talking about what they feel and teach them strategies for expressing their emotions.
Scientific review: Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier, psychologist, lecturer, and associate professor at UQAM
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: August 2022
Photos: GettyImages/ptaxa et tylim
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