Understanding Children’s Emotions

Children, like adults, experience different emotions during daily life. They also experience and show anger, sadness, happiness, joy and disappointment in their own unique ways. Making sure children feeling understood is one of the most important aspects of establishing and maintaining healthy communication with them. In order to make them feel understood, we have to see and accept the emotional needs in children.

Why Is It Important To Accept Emotions?

What is emotion? As a dictionary meaning, it is a strong feeling deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. Emotions are connected to our basic needs and have the keys to our personalities. Our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors which make up our personalities are interconnected and interacted together. For children, like for adults, we cannot separate emotions neither from cognition nor behaviors. In this sense, advising kids/people to not be or get emotional during hard times to handle stress is problematic. Likewise, when children are bored or angry about something, and they hear their parents saying “stop being such a baby, it’s not that big of a deal” is telling the child that showing emotions is problematic, embarrassing, and even humiliating. This makes it difficult for parents to actually solve the problem. When feelings are ignored or made fun of, the child gets emotionally distant from their parents if not physically. Whether it's as simple as losing a pen or as serious as having an illness, children need to be listened to and ultimately feel understood when they encounter life difficulties. That’s because it’s impossible to separate emotions from ourselves. That's why it's so important to understand the language of our emotions and what our reactions to emotions say to the other person.

How Do We Accept Emotions?

Listen, validate, show empathy

In order to answer this question, it is essential to first talk about 'how to be better listeners'. In fact, regardless of age everyone should be a good listener. Body language matters during a conversation for active listening. It is important to alter one’s stance according to the child's height, to maintain eye contact while talking, not to interrupt, and to turn the body completely towards the child. It is also crucial to reflect while children talk, to show that you track them and show interest in their conversation. For example, “hmm, go on, I see, tell me more” are simple but effective active listening words.

How to talk in a more emotionally accepting way? By learning, reading and naming feelings.

Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, in short, their style of narrative reveal the feelings. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger are our basic emotions. How can we name these feelings during our turn of the conversation?

For example, it is the first day of school, the kid comes home and tells parents what a terrible day he had, that he has no friends, and that he doesn't like anyone.

"Don’t exaggerate, you are fine, there is nothing to be upset about, what’s wrong with you?" may sound familiar. These sentences might cause children to feel ignored, guilty, not accepted, and talking to parents might become unnecessary and hopeless. What can be the alternative responses that includes acknowledging and accepting emotions, and at the same time encourages to use problem-solving skills?

"You're sad that you had such a bad day / You must be very upset about it / you are angry because no one played with you / The first days at school can be really scary, you had to get used to a lot of new things." These sentences are reflection sentences that show that you hear, see and understand the emotion.

When we really listen to children and respect their feelings, we will see how successful they are when it comes to solving problems. Let's read an example of a dialogue between a mother and a child: (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, p.30,31):

- “Someone stole my new red pen.

- Are you sure you didn't lose it?

- No, I didn't lose it. It was standing on my desk when I was heading to the rest room.

- Well, that's what happens when you leave your stuff in a mess. You've had your belongings stolen before; this is not the first time! I always tell you to "keep your valuables under the desk". Your problem is that you never listen.

- Ugh, go away!

- Don’t talk back!”

Some of the common mistakes we make while talking to kids are to ask for the cause of emotions, try to solve the problem, or try to find out who is right or who is wrong. However, children do not need this. In the same way, giving advice, warning, or disciplining may not be what the child needs to hear at that moment.

Alternative dialogue:

- “Someone stole my new red pen.

- Oh?

- I left it on my desk on the way to the toilet; someone got it.

- Hmm...

- It’s been 3 times now they are taking it.

- Ah!

- I know what to do next time; I will hide my pen under the desk when I leave the classroom.

- Oh, I get it..."

“What children often need, especially when they are experiencing strong emotions is for someone to help them understand what is going on, that is, use their left brain to put things in order and name those big and scary right-brain feelings.”

(The Whole-Brain Child, p.52)

As parents or adults, we should see and listen to the children as individuals. When we focus on what they say and how they express it, it becomes easier for us to reflect on emotions and thus children will feel understood and validated. Acknowledging does not mean justifying. The thing that matters is to recognize the emotion, to know that having different feelings is okay. Telling the kid ‘you're so right’ would provide temporary comfort. An example of this (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, p.46,47):

- “The teacher canceled the music class today. She sucks!

- You rehearsed for hours for that class! A ruthless lady!”

This dialogue will not go on, and it will be difficult for the child to think creatively and constructively. Alternative one:

- “The teacher canceled the music class today. She sucks!

- It is a very sad situation; You were looking forward to it all day.

- Yeah. Just because the other kids misbehaved... It's their fault.

- Hmm...

- The teacher went crazy because they cannot work as a choir.

- I see.

- The teacher said that she will give us another chance if we get ourselves together... Let me work on my part again. Can you help me with this tonight?"

Kids are actually better problem solvers than we think they are. From the developmental perspective, a child who reaches the age of 4 begins to see things from the perspective of others and is more willing to collaborate when solving problems. By the age of 5, their abstract thinking and language skills improves, and their vocabulary increases so they can solve problems based on their observations and even share their techniques with others.

Listen, validate, show empathy. Three steps with 4 words which establishes healthy communication with children (actually with anybody). By applying this simple but effective strategy with children, parents can become more sensitive to emotions and guide their children in dealing with the strong emotions.

*If you are interested in this topic I recommend reading the books that are in the references section.


How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Understanding Children’s Emotions by Isabelle Filliozat

The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel

Ages & Stages: How Children Learn to Solve Problems



Avicenna Schools Guidance and Counseling Department