Your child's emotional development

When we talk about emotional development, we are referring to children’s growing ability to

  • identify and understand their own feelings
  • accurately read and understand the feelings of others
  • manage the way they feel
  • shape the way they behave
  • develop empathy for others, and
  • build and keep good relationships with friends, family and others.

From the time they are born, children quickly develop their abilities to experience and express different emotions, as well as their capacity to cope with and manage a variety of feelings.

Managing feelings

Children’s ability to manage or shape the way they feel is a critical part of their development and often the source of much parental concern.

Children don’t start life with the ability to control how they are feeling. They are easily overwhelmed by strong feelings and cannot calm themselves down. Babies and young children need parents to help them to do this.

Young children frequently get frustrated because there is a large gap between the things they want to do and what they are actually able to do. This often results in a temper tantrum.

Feelings and behaviour are closely linked. When feelings are not well managed, children’s ability to think can be impaired. As a result, children act on their feelings often without thinking.

By the time they start school, children are more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others. They are better able to link their thoughts and feelings and use words to describe their feelings. As such, they become better able to change and shape the way they feel. Children’s ability to change and adapt their feelings means they are more likely to tolerate their own frustration better, put off getting things they really want and are able to calm themselves down.

Relationships are important for children’s feelings

Children’s emotional development is greatly influenced by the quality of the relationship that is developed between themselves and their parents. The way parents interact with their child has a lot to do with the way the child will develop emotionally.

Children learn to manage their emotions by watching how other family member express and manage their emotions. Parents play a critical role in modelling how to respond to strong feelings.

Children need help and practice in managing their emotions.

Supporting your child’s emotional development

Keep the emotional climate of the home calm, warm and predictable.

Accept and acknowledge your child’s emotions.

Read stories to children and talk about the different feelings characters in the book may be feeling. Talking about emotions helps children to better understand their feelings.

Help your child to put feelings into words – “it seems like you are feeling disappointed at the moment”.

Encourage children to talk about situations that make them feel excited, happy, angry or worried.

Praise children for not losing control and staying calm.

Help children to separate feelings from behaviour – “I know you are feeling angry but it is not OK to hit.”

Help children to understand the difference between their own and other people’s feelings - “I know you are feeling frustrated right now but what you are doing is making your sister feel sad”.