How to Help Kids Deal with Their Emotions

In the first few months of life, an infant's range of emotions is pretty limited, but within just a few years, he'll experience the gamut. He won't understand what he's feeling, however, or be able to label emotions. Parents can help by translating feelings, putting a name to them, and teaching kids the proper way to react.

The First Three Months

happy mom and baby

Denis Horan

If there is one skill a newborn has no trouble mastering, it's the heart-wrenching sob. Your baby is communicating a need -- "I'm hungry" -- but also an emotion: "I'm upset!" Newborns have two basic emotional states: happy and unhappy. "A content baby is sleeping or just observing what is going on around her," says Sara Van Bortel, a social worker at the Mt. Hope Family Center, in Rochester, New York. Everyone knows the features of an unhappy baby: tears, screams, and writhing. "It's a full-body experience," Van Bortel says. All those theatrics are your baby's way of saying "Help me feel calm again." When you fulfill that need, you're teaching an important first lesson in emotions. When she's unhappy, a person who loves her will take care of her.

After crying, smiling is the second expression of emotion. Real smiles start at around 6 weeks of age. Just like adults, who can flash a polite smile to a person they pass on the street and an overjoyed grin to a beloved friend, babies have different kinds of smiles. The true "I'm so happy" smile requires the use of a muscle near the eye, a muscle that very few people can manipulate voluntarily. It's reflexive and controlled by the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion, according to Lise Elliot, PhD, author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years (Bantam Books).

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