4 Big Emotions to Talk About With Little Kids
The different ways your child behaves actually stems from a list of four complex emotions. Here’s how explain them to your child in a way they’ll understand so they can learn to manage them.
Children as young as 1 start to show emotions, and whether you realized it or not, that's when you started showing them back. Remember the time you told your little one, "Ouchie" and frowned when he threw that toy car? That's an emotion! "We implicitly identify, demonstrate, and explain why our toddlers shouldn't act a certain way by discussing and showing them the correct way," says Jaime Gleicher, LMSW, a behavioral therapist at Harstein Psychological Services Center in New York City.
But we often don't take the same time and effort to give those kinds of emotional cues to school-aged kids. "If you're just going to tell your child to go to her room when she misbehaves, you're missing an opportunity to discuss with her why she acted out and how she might be feeling," she adds. These small gestures can open the door to communication to help your child understand the complexities of emotions.
"There's no school subject on identifying and explaining emotions, even though building and growing your child's emotional intelligence and emotional vocabulary should start at a very young age. In my opinion, it's as important as learning numbers, letters, and color sorting," says Gleicher. The purpose of feelings is to make sense of what's going on inside of us and around us. Feelings give us quick feedback to use based upon our past experiences.
However, when you are young you have no prior experiences to pull from—you react based on how you feel. "It's up to the parent or caregiver to train children in how to identify, name, interpret, and use their emotions. Then kids will learn a new language for self-expression," explains Gleicher. This language is one that doesn't stifle, shove down, repress, and then explode, but rather helps them understand why they are feeling what they are feeling. "The greatest gift you can give your kids is the ability to experience, recognize, and deal with emotions—it will be their key to resilience later in life," says Gleicher.
Rather than trying to define a long list of emotions for your child, start with the basics. Here you will find the most common complex emotions which all other emotions stem from, and how to talk to your kids about them.
Anger is a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility. For children, who can be very easily provoked when a playmate grabs their toy, anger comes out because their fight or flight response is triggered. When your child throws a tantrum, hits, or does something inappropriate, he is reacting to stimuli that made him feel some sort of pain or frustration.
"Anger may seem irrational but for a child that hasn't yet learned how to regulate emotions, it's an immediate natural reaction to some sort of wrongdoing your child feels," says Jaclyn Shlisky, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist in Long Island, New York. Since you know your child's behavior (the anger or hostility he is showing) comes from somewhere, talk it through with him as it's happening.
Identify the feeling: Say, "It looks like you're really mad," and mimic the facial features of being angry. It's important to not use definitive words like "I see" over words like "It looks like" or "It seems." Gleicher points out that it's crucial you don't put exact words on an experience and invalidate your child's feelings if the child isn't actually mad, rather feeling sad or anxious. "It gives the child the opportunity to correct the parents if it isn't so," says Gleicher.
Explain the feeling: Say, "Sometimes things don't go the way we want them to and that makes us feel mad and upset." Then teach your child how they can express themselves when those feelings occur. Have you child practice saying something like, "I really don't like when you grab a toy out of my hand." Gleicher explains that negative behaviors—hitting, yelling, or crying when feeling angry—is the underlying emotion that has not been regulated or recovered yet. A meltdown is the emotion that's not understood—your child needs you to explain how they are feeling because they can't communicate it themselves; this is called building your child's emotional vocabulary.
"They need a word to associate with a feeling so they can use their words to express rather than react," she says. When your child throws a tantrum, hits, or does something inappropriate, Gleicher recommends asking them how they are feeling in addition to a consequence. That way they can understand that anger leads to hitting, and when they feel anger, they can express it in other ways. "The message should always be: you have feelings, this is how they look, it's OK to feel and no emotion is ever permanent," she says. (You should also do this on the opposite side of the spectrum, "You just scored a goal in soccer! How do you feel?")
How to make things easier: A good technique to teaching children about an emotion is pointing it out in others. "When you read storybooks or watch movies, ask your child how they think the character may be feeling? This not only increases emotional vocabulary, it teaches empathy, the act of putting oneself in others' shoes," says Gleicher.
The feeling of loss, sorrow, or being let down is a major one for your kiddos. Sadness can happen when your child feels scared, or when someone says or does something that feels bad. Sadness can be a feeling you get from missing someone (whether through death or distance) or having to go through something painful (like seeing your parents argue). Sadness can also develop through disappointment, like the early closing of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic or a playdate that can't happen.
Identify the feeling: "When your child is sad they not only feel sad, they think sad and will act sad," says Dr. Shlisky. Tears are the most obvious sign your child is sad but children may manifest sadness in other ways like anger, isolation, and even clinginess.
"By the time they turn 1, infants gain an awareness that parents can help them regulate their emotions. They cry and you come running. As they grow out of the infancy stage, toddlers begin to understand that certain emotions are associated with certain situations," says Dr. Shlisky. The danger of sadness and not understanding its underlying source is that sadness can turn into anger and then result in meltdowns. If every time your child cries you try to appease them, you're just putting a bandage on a situation instead of helping them solve a problem." Children need the tools to be able to say, "I feel sad because..." otherwise they are learning their feelings can be muted and they won't learn how to name the real reasons for their sadness, adds Dr. Shlisky.
Explain the feeling: For example, if your child loses their favorite stuffed animal and is feeling sad, listen to them, in whatever that way is and let them see by your actions that you are there for them if they need extra hugs or snuggles or just need to cry. "You may also normalize their feelings by sharing a story about how you experienced a similar loss when you were their age. Be honest about how sad you were and how you cried. Talk about what helped you with your sad feelings. Parents often try to be strong for their children, to show them that everything will be OK. However, it can actually be beneficial for a child to see adults showing appropriate emotion. It is OK to say, "Daddy is sad, too." Dr. Shlisky recommends demonstrating that feelings are not something they need to try to mask or feel ashamed of.
How to make things easier: Avoid the pitfall of saying "use your words" when a child is upset since it's not a reasonable expectation while the young child is still in the early stages of learning how to connect body and mind sensations with a feelings vocabulary. "I tell a lot of parents to create a feelings chart using emojis which all kids love—and use it to teach your kids to recognize how facial expressions correlate to feelings," says Gleicher. Or if they can't put a name to the feeling they're having, they can point to the expression that matches it.
Children aren't naturally afraid, but feelings of fear stem from anxiety and worry. "When young kids have fear it involves some level of perception about danger," says Gleicher. Some fears are natural—most kids are afraid of strangers, the dark, and separation from their parents. But having carefree days every day isn't the norm. Your child might have heard something on TV, seen something or someone that made them feel uncomfortable, or a real life event spooked them like a car accident.
Identify the feeling: Since there are fears we can't always protect our kids from, like a worldwide pandemic, be sure to validate your child's worries about the situation ("That does sound really scary") rather than downplay how they're feeling by telling them everything will be fine. "Be calm and matter of fact in your delivery so your child feels safe," says Dr. Shlisky.
Explain the feeling: You can express you have similar feelings ("I feel that way too") and ask your child if they want to ask you any questions about it. And if you don't actually know the answer? It's best to say you will find ways to learn more and get back to them with an answer. Sometimes simply allowing your child to verbally process what's going on in his head will help. "At times our kids need to tell us things simply because they're too heavy for them to hold onto by themselves," she says. Helping him feel confident that there is an open door and a listening ear anytime he needs it can be the comfort he needs.
How to make things easier: Since it's more difficult for a young child to express the root of their fear, telling stories, acting out situations, or reading books about a particularly scary situation can help kids overcome fears. Experts recommend books like, The Color Monster and Wemberly Worried to read to kids.
The green-eyed monster of jealousy has a way of getting the best of us, with it showing up in kids as young as 3 months, says Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., a psychologist in New York. It's an emotion easily felt and often expressed—mom holds a stranger's baby or a sibling gets presents for his birthday—but the concept of jealousy is tricky to explain. While it's often described as feelings or thoughts of insecurity, fear, or concern over a relative lack of possessions or safety, it can also be the feeling of inadequacy, helplessness, or resentment. "Feelings of jealousy are often rooted in an individual's needs not being met. It may develop from a lack of trust and often leads to a sense of insecurity," says Dr. Zeltser.
Identify the feeling: Jealousy and envy are closely related, however, with envy, you want what you never had and with jealousy, you are threatened with the loss of something you have or at least believe you have.
The material jealousy is an envy ("I want what she has") and starts as young as toddler age. "Toddlers don't think twice about taking a toy they want from a playmate. Luckily, once children are enrolled in school and start understanding societal norms, they usually stop stealing what they want from their peers—but that doesn't stop them from wanting or yearning for the goods other kids have," explains Dr. Zeltser. Try to shift the focus away from material goods and onto the non-monetary riches your family provides. Perhaps you're able to spend more time with your kids because of your flexible work schedule. Point out the positives so you can turn the narrative away from feeling inadequate to feeling confident.
Then there's social jealousy, like if your daughter didn't get invited to a sleepover, which causes feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. "Some children have an understanding of fairness that creates an inner struggle for them when a situation occurs that displays how something can be unfair," says Dr. Zeltser. The first rule of thumb for parents dealing with social jealousy is to never discount your child's feelings. After all, while you might not think drama over cafeteria seating is an issue, it might mean the world to your kid. Once your child starts spilling the beans about what's bothering her, be understanding. Try saying, "I can see how that would make you feel left out." Then, problem solve by offering real suggestions to help your child overcome those jealous feelings, such as hosting a more inclusive sleepover (even with the girl who left your daughter out), or joining a new club or team at school to build more friendships.
There's another kind of jealousy with young children that involves thinking you will lose or have lost some affection, attention, or security from another person because of someone or something else, including their interest in an activity that takes time away from you. This can show up in the smallest of situations, like when your child wants to have the biggest slice of birthday cake at his friend's party. If your child cries when he sees he doesn't get what he wants (he's not the birthday boy after all), ask him what's going on that's making him cry (even if you know why). You want to get your child talking about his emotions to recognize why they occur. "You want to validate their emotions and acknowledge them," says Dr. Zeltser. "I see you're upset about the cake" and "Sometimes we don't get what we want"—the key is to never start the next sentence with the word "but" as you're implicitly invalidating their feelings. Follow up with "and" instead—"And it's normal to want the biggest slice of cake. Today we're going to let your friend have it because it's his birthday." Then, shift the focus to something that would make your child feel happy, like asking your son to tell his friend how much fun he's having.
How to make things easier: The biggest mistake parents make is saying to a child, "There's no reason to be sad" or "Stop crying" because that doesn't help the fact that your kid is already sad. You're only further constricting their emotions and telling them not to show it, rather than how to deal with it.