0

An Age-By-Age Guide to Helping Kids Manage Emotions

How we react to our kids’ emotions has an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence.

Share this post:

Written by Sanya Pelini

We are all born with emotions, but not all those emotions are pre-wired into our brains. Kids are born with emotional reactions such as crying, frustration, hunger, and pain. But they learn about other emotions as they grow older.

There is no general consensus about the emotions that are in-built versus those learned from emotional, social, and cultural contexts. It is widely accepted, however, that the eight primary in-built emotions are anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame. These are reflected in different variations. For instance, resentment and violence often stem from anger, and anxiety is often associated with fear.

Secondary emotions are always linked to these eight primary emotions and reflect our emotional reaction to specific feelings. These emotions are learned from our experiences. For example, a child who has been punished because of a meltdown might feel anxious the next time she gets angry. A child who has been ridiculed for expressing fear might feel shame the next time he gets scared.

In other words, how we react to our kids’ emotions has an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence.

Emotional invalidation prevents kids from learning how to manage their emotions. When we teach kids to identify their emotions, we give them a framework that helps explain how they feel, which makes it easier for them to deal with those emotions in a socially appropriate way.
The emotions children experience vary depending on age.

Infants

Infants are essentially guided by emotions pre-wired into their brains. For instance, cries are usually an attempt to avoid unpleasant stimuli or to move towards pleasant stimuli (food, touch, hugs).

Evidence suggests that, in the first six months, infants are capable of experiencing and responding to distress by adopting self-soothing behavior such as sucking. Other studies have found that toddlers develop self-regulation skills in infancy and are able to approach or avoid situations depending on their emotional impact.

How you can help

A recent study suggests that “listening to recordings of play songs can maintain six- to nine-month-old infants in a relatively contented or neutral state considerably longer than recordings of infant-directed or adult-directed speech.”

The study explains that multimodal singing is more effective than maternal speech for calming highly aroused 10-month-old infants. It also suggests that play songs (“The Wheels on the Bus” for instance) are more effective than lullabies at reducing distress.

Toddlers

By the time they turn one, infants gain an awareness that parents can help them regulate their emotions.

As they grow out of the infancy stage, toddlers begin to understand that certain emotions are associated with certain situations. A number of studies suggest that fear is the most difficult emotion for toddlers. At this age, parents can begin using age-appropriate approaches to talk to kids about emotions and encourage them to name those emotions.

By the time they turn two, kids are able to adopt strategies to deal with difficult emotions. For instance, they are able to distance themselves from the things that upset them.

How you can help

Situation selection, modification, and distraction are the best strategies to help kids deal with anger and fear at this age, according to one study. In other words, helping toddlers avoid distressing situations or distracting them from those situations is one of the most effective emotion-regulation strategies.

As they grow older, toddlers can be taught to handle those situations by themselves. Indeed, they are capable of understanding different emotions and of learning different self-regulation methods that can help them deal with difficult situations. Providing toddlers with an appropriate framework can help them learn how to manage those emotions by themselves.

Naming emotions also helps toddlers learn that emotions are normal. Everyday opportunities provide occasions to talk to kids about emotions: “He sure looks angry.” “Why do you think he looks so sad?”

Toddlers also learn about managing their emotions by watching us.

Childhood

Kids experience many emotions during the childhood years. Many secondary emotions come into play at this age as a child’s emotions are either validated or invalidated, influencing future emotional reactions.

Children are able to understand and differentiate appropriate from inappropriate emotional expressions, but they still find it hard to express their emotions, especially if they haven’t learned to identify and name them.

How you can help

Emotion regulation is not just about expressing emotions in a socially appropriate manner. It is a three-phase process that involves teaching children to identify emotions, helping them identify what triggers those emotions, and teaching them to manage those emotions by themselves. When we teach kids that their emotions are valid, we help them view what they feel as normal and manageable.

Modeling appropriate behavior is also important during the childhood years. The best way to teach your child to react to anger appropriately is to show her how. Evidence suggests that kids pick up our emotions, and that those exposed to many negative emotions are more likely to struggle.

Ultimately, helping kids manage their emotions begins by validating those emotions and providing an environment in which they feel safe to express them. As several studies have shown, kids who feel safe are more likely to develop and use appropriate emotion regulation skills to deal with difficult feelings.


The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.


Share this post:

Parent.com is a digital publication for people who are as curious about the world as they are committed to raising great kids. Our mission is to inspire parents and help them succeed by sharing useful, hilarious, and compelling stories every day.

Recommended products

$199.00

Are you a new or soon-to-be parent, navigating the chaos of early parenthood? It’s common for new parents to become absorbed in their baby’s world, but there’s one vital element that often gets overlooked: the emotional connection between you and your partner.

Research has proven that the relationship with your partner is the cornerstone of your baby’s development. It’s not just about raising a happy, healthy child; it’s about cultivating a loving, harmonious environment for your growing family.

The Bringing Baby Home Parents Workshop is your guide to strengthening these vital connections.

Subscribe to the Gottman Parenting Newsletter and get access to special pricing, free content and early looks at new products.

$16.00

John Gottman draws on his studies of more than 120 families to zero in on the parenting techniques that ensure a child’s emotional health.

Due to popular demand, this product is currently out of stock.

$15.00

The 6-step plan for preserving intimacy and rekindling romance after baby arrives.

Related posts

The power of playtime with dad

The Power of Playtime with Dad

Alexander Elguren

Studies show there are positive outcomes for toddlers who engage in playtime with their dads. ...

Read More

Father taking his daughter and son to school

Fatherhood’s Unexpected Silver Lining 

Alexander Elguren

How emotion coaching and tribal wisdom made this single dad thrive ...

Read More

setting boundaries

Setting Boundaries With Others

Hailey Magee

An excerpt from the book 'STOP People Pleasing and Find Your Power' published by Simon & Schuster. ...

Read More

Teenager on screen- part of an adolescent mental health crisis?

Should We Be Worried About Our Teenagers?

Alexander Elguren

The stats around adolescent mental health point to a crisis, but are things really that bad? ...

Read More

Authenticity in Relationships

Anna Aslanian

To create a close, intimate connection we need to be authentic in our relationship. However, this is easier said than done. ...

Read More

Couple turning to screens instead of each other

Isolation in the Digital Era: The Power of Human Relationships

Alexander Elguren

Americans aren't spending enough time together despite the mental health costs of isolation. ...

Read More

Subscribe to Gottman Love Notes

Sign up and start your relationship transformation. Subscribe and get the latest on relationships, therapy, and much more from the experts. Includes a free download and access to special pricing on Gottman products every month