How children learn to control their emotions

How children learn to control their emotions
How can you teach your child to control his emotions and express them appropriately?

Emotions are messages sent by the brain to let you know how you feel about a situation. When a situation makes you uneasy, for example, you adjust your behaviour in order to change it. This is why it’s important to remember not to encourage children to repress their emotions but rather give them the right tools to express them.

Children who know how to control and manage the intensity of their emotions respond better to everyday situations. Emotional control is associated with strong interpersonal relationships, better conflict management skills, and academic success.

Recognizing their emotions

Children shouldn’t be pigeonholed based on their feelings. Avoid phrases like “He’s always had a temper” or “She’s like that because she’s shy.” Children tend to put too much stock into what others think and to assume the labels they’re given.
  • Teach your child about basic emotions such as joy, sadness, anger, and fear. Disappointment, guilt, melancholy, and other more complex emotions can wait until later.
  • Help your child identify the basic emotions. Teach him the body language associated with each emotion—for example, that we furrow our eyebrows when we’re angry, smile when we’re happy, cry when we’re sad, and that our eyes get wide when we’re scared. Knowing how to read other people’s emotions will make it easier for your child to interact with others and know how to act in different situations.
  • Have fun mimicking different emotions in front of a mirror with your child so that she can see what her own emotions look like. You can also help her make a homemade emotion book filled with faces that have been cut out of magazines.
  • Teach your child to recognize what happens on the inside when people experience an emotion. This can be a challenge for young children, who aren’t yet fully aware of their bodies. Help your little one by pointing out the physical reactions you observe in him. For example, you could say: “You shouted and clenched your fists when you saw that your brother had knocked over your building blocks” or “You clung to my legs trembling when you saw that dog running towards you.”
  • Ask your child what sensations she felt after an emotional event. Chances are her answer won’t be very detailed, but one way to begin is by asking what she felt in her chest or stomach. She might say that her heart hurt or that her stomach felt squeezed—already a promising start. Recognizing physical sensations is the first step to healthy emotional control.
  • Help your child identify the emotions associated with how he felt by putting a name to the emotions you observe. For example, tell him “You are happy to be going to the zoo with Grandma” or “You were mad when your brother knocked over your toys.” Encourage him to name his emotions by using “I” statements such as “I’m sad that I can’t go to the park” or “I’m afraid of the big bad wolf.” This will teach your child to take ownership of and accept his emotions.

Controlling their emotions

There’s a difference between expressing an emotion and having an emotional reaction. On one hand, your child is expressing an emotion if she tells you she is sad because you didn’t buy her a new toy. On the other hand, she is reacting emotionally if she accidentally breaks something, hurts somebody, or starts bouncing off the walls the moment she becomes angry or excited. Of course, it’s normal for toddlers to behave this way; they are impulsive and have little self-control at their age. It’s for this reason that they need their parents to teach them healthy ways to express their emotions.

There are many different strategies for expressing emotions, and the same strategy can sometimes be used for more than one emotion. It will take a few tries before your child finds the ones that work best for him. Here are a few suggestions to use as starting points:

  • If your child feels sad, suggest that he give his favourite stuffed animal a hug, have some alone time in his room, or tell you what’s bothering him. Crying is also a normal way to express sadness.
  • If your child feels scared, suggest snuggling up next to you and look for ways to ease her fears, whether the source of her fear is real (e.g., a dog) or imaginary (e.g., the big bad wolf).
  • If your child feels angry, suggest taking slow, deep breaths, punching a pillow, throwing balled-up pieces of paper, or drawing whatever it is that’s making him angry.
  • If your child feels happy, suggest colouring, running around outside, or phoning Grandpa to tell him all about it.
  • Books are great tools for teaching children how to control their emotions. You could talk to or ask your child about how a certain character in a story feels and have her describe the body language associated with the character’s emotions. You could then discuss the possible reasons behind those emotions and ask what the character could do to be less sad, less afraid, etc.
  • Your child’s emotions should always be taken seriously. Let your little one know that you understand how he might feel sad, angry, or happy in certain situations; this will make him feel understood and comforted. It will also help him accept his emotions more easily and become less likely to express them in unacceptable ways.
  • If you notice that your child overreacts in certain situations, find a gentle way of telling her so. For example, if she starts to sob as if someone just died simply because her toy figurine keeps falling over, let her know in a calm voice that she’s going overboard. Stay upbeat while helping her calm down, and try to take the drama out of the situation.
  • Lead by example. If you do your best to channel your emotions, your child will likely follow suit. If you’re feeling annoyed or frustrated, describe some of what you’re feeling out loud and talk about what you’re going to do to cheer up when something is bothering you. For example, you could say: “I’m disappointed that Samia isn’t coming over for dinner, but I’m going to watch a good movie instead.” This strategy is an excellent way to show your child how to calm down and stay composed.

Being able to express emotions appropriately is a sign that your child has developed self-control. If your little one doesn’t seem to be learning how to manage her emotions, talk to her doctor or get in touch with your local CLSC for information about family services in your area.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Research and copywriting: Naître et grandir
Last update: October 2015


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