Managing children’s emotions: a challenge for young and old!

Whether we are parents, educators, or any other person responsible for a child, we often find ourselves disoriented and sometimes powerless in the face of the emotional outbursts to which they expose us.

At the beginning of life, they are first expressed in their raw state. It is the complex task of those around the child to understand what the child is signalling when he or she is agitated, screaming, crying or smiling. It is also their task to find the right action to restore harmony in the child’s relationship to the world, and it is their task to lead the child along the path that will gradually lead him or her to manifest emotions in socialised forms.

What is an emotion?

Although emotions and feelings are similar, these words refer to somewhat different concepts. Emotions are spontaneous reactions to a situation, to an internal or external event, which last a short time. They can lead to physical manifestations (pallor, blushing, restlessness, increased heartbeat and breathing, etc.) and psychological manifestations (negative or positive thoughts, change of mood). Examples are joy, fear and anger.

Definition of feelings

Feelings, on the other hand, refer to a more lasting emotional state that changes over time (e.g. love, hate, trust, etc.). Although they are different, emotions and feelings are closely related. Feelings cause all kinds of emotions and, conversely, emotions can generate feelings.

For example, if your toddler was afraid of the neighbour’s dog (emotion), which barked at him, he might later develop insecurity (feeling) at the mere sight of a dog.

But then: what about the development of emotions?

During the first year of a child’s life, what are called primary emotions, also called basic or universal emotions, develop (Paul Ekman, 1970). An emotion is said to be universal if, when a person feels it, he or she expresses that emotion in the same way on his or her face as any other human, regardless of culture or background.

According to Ekman’s studies, each primary emotion is associated with a particular facial expression and is common to everyone. For example, when we are happy, we smile, and the corners of our mouth turn up. 50 years later, his theory is still valid and supported by the scientific community.

The six main emotions


– Sadness



-Anger and surprise appear in the first year of life.

Secondary emotions

The secondary emotions, which are more complex, appear during the second year of life: when your child becomes aware that he is different from others and that he/she is a person in his/her own right (this is when the word “no” appears). This discovery leads your toddler to feel emotions related to self-awareness, such as embarrassment or jealousy. These emotions are not as easily identifiable as the more primary ones. They are learned, mental and do not have a biological adaptive function. They vary according to the societies, cultures and groups to which we belong. For example, shame would be a secondary emotion resulting from a mixture of fear and anger, and optimism would come from a mixture of hope and joy.

Later, in the third year, the child experiences secondary emotions that require understanding of certain rules, norms and goals to be achieved. These include guilt, embarrassment and pride. For example, if your child knows that he/she should not draw on the walls and disobeys this rule, he/she may feel guilty. And if your child manage to drive his/her tricycle or put together a big puzzle after a lot of effort, he/she feels proud of himself/herself. As your child grows and develops his/her thinking, he/she perceives and interprets situations differently, which affects his/her emotional reactions.

For example, your 3 year old may be very scared when he/she sees a person dressed as a monster. But at 5 years old, the same person doesn’t scare him anymore, because he/she knows he/she is wearing a costume. Over time, children also become more adept at controlling their emotions, as they gain a better understanding of the world around them. They make connections between the emotions shown and the mental states, and know that emotions can be felt without being shown. Gradually, they express their frustrations verbally. At age 4, they begin to accept their frustrations better.

By the age of 5, children are more able to contain their emotions: they enrich their repertoire of emotional communication. The regulation of their emotions is influenced by the culture and education provided by the society and family to which they belong. He learns from his environment what is dangerous, what is sad, what is joyful, and he creates an emotional framework for himself.

The role of the brain in emotions

Did you know? The child’s brain is “immature” until the age of 5-6. The child then experiences his/her emotions without a filter and goes through real “emotional storms”.

In fact, the human brain is composed of three distinct parts:

-the reptilian or archaic brain

-the limbic (or emotional) brain

-the neocortex, or higher brain.

A child is dominated by his or her reptilian and limbic brain until about the age of five. These two parts of the brain control our primal instincts, and allow us to feel emotions and remember them. It is only after this key age of 5-6 years that the neocortex begins to intervene, and it does not mature until around 25 years old! It is the seat of reasoning. It is involved in higher cognitive functions such as consciousness and reflection. This is why, in the early years, the child experiences emotional storms. All his/her emotions are very intense because he/she has no way of channelling them. This is why children are prone to anger, anxiety, and great sorrow… During the first five years of life, the child’s brain will connect the 100 billion neurons already present before birth, according to the new information perceived.

The adult therefore has a determining role in the creation of these connections. Through play, stimulation, encouragement, understanding of the child: each adult helps the child a little more to develop, to understand the world around him/her and to adapt to it. The first years of life are a crucial period: these are the most frequent (and not the best) experiences of the small child (up to about 5 years old), which will condition the development of his/her brain.

The development of emotional competence

From the age of 5-6 years, the brain begins to sort itself out: the most used connections are strengthened, and the least used connections disappear. This is called synaptic pruning.

It is during this crucial period of development that the adult must help the child to develop his/her “emotional intelligence”, his/her “emotional competence”.

We often hear about managing emotions, but less about the importance of developing emotional competence. However, knowing how to manage one’s emotions is only one of the three stages of emotional competence. Emotional competence includes managing emotions, expressing emotions and knowing emotions. By developing this skill as a whole, your child will gradually be able to manage his or her emotions better.

But then: how to help your child?

It is essential to respond to his/her needs

A baby cries, and sometimes a lot! It is necessary to respond to his:her distress by comforting him:her and giving him/her the appropriate care. If he/she is not comforted, he/she may experience insecurity and stress and develop low self-esteem. It will then be more difficult for him/her to regulate his/her emotions and to care for those around him/her. “The baby does not exist on his/her own” (Winicott), he/she exists thanks to the responses given to him/her by the adult.

Remember that you are a role model for your child

If you channel your emotions, they will tend to do the same. On the other hand, it is difficult to demand that your child stop being angry if you get carried away easily. It is important to say out loud what we are doing to make us feel better when something is bothering us. By hiding our emotions, we may accumulate them inside ourselves and risk them coming out in various forms or falling on other people. An adaptive emotion is released within minutes when expressed. A parasitic emotional reaction, on the other hand, can last much longer.

Put emotions into words

Name your emotions and those you observe in your child “I see you are angry because your brother refuses to lend you his truck”. In this way, children learn to put words to their feelings. You can start from birth. In this way, he or she will learn the vocabulary of emotions at the same time as language.

Take your child’s emotions seriously

Tell your child that you understand that he or she may be sad, upset, angry or jealous in a particular situation. emotional relief is very important for children. They will feel understood and comforted. They will then be less likely to show their emotions in an unacceptable way. Of course, if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate, it should be told. On the other hand, it is best to avoid banal reflections that may persuade the child that his or her emotions are illegitimate: “Don’t cry” / “Be brave”, etc. By suppressing emotions, the child may not be able to handle emotional language. By listening to children today and giving them the means to express their emotions, whatever they may be, we are doing tomorrow’s adults a favour.

Help your child to recognise emotions

Your child will recognise emotions better if you point out the body language associated with them. Knowing how to ‘read’ the face makes it easier to relate to others: it helps them to adapt their behaviour to the situation. For example, you can use the time when you read to your child to get them to talk about the emotions of the characters.

Help your child develop empathy

Empathy, the ability to perceive another person’s feelings and emotions and to put oneself in their shoes, develops at around 4-6 years of age. However, children can begin to empathise much earlier, when they recognise an emotion they have already experienced in another person. At 18 months, some children will comfort a friend by bringing them a soft toy or giving them a hug, so it’s important to value your toddler’s empathetic gestures, as they show that they care. You can also draw their attention to the reactions of others to their behaviour. They will realise that their actions may have consequences for them and that they may have different needs and wants than they do.

What about the child’s anger?

Is your child screaming, rolling on the floor, stamping his/her feet? Wait for the storm to pass. If you try to reason with them, you are feeding the crisis. If you raise your voice, he or she will scream louder, not to mention the fact that you may also scare him or her. Stay close, try to stay calm and wait until he/she is calmer. Then you can hold him/her and get him/her to talk about what made him/her angry. It is important to help the child recognise the emotion and name it.

Only the adult, in his or her comforting presence, will be able to help the child regulate his or her emotions.

However, life as a parent is not always easy and sometimes you lose your patience. If you feel anger building up, it is best to withdraw for a while before you explode (making sure your child is safe). Otherwise, you risk destabilising and frightening your child, as well as making him/her feel insecure
What to do, on the other hand, if you have really lost your temper? You should apologise to your child and talk briefly about what happened. For example: “I got too angry earlier. I shouldn’t have shouted. I should have taken a breath before I spoke, I’m sorry. I’ll make an effort to avoid shouting By doing this, you become a role model, as you show them how to behave when someone is hurt.

The importance of boundaries for children

One strategy for reducing your tantrums is to give your toddler clear and consistent boundaries. If you are inconsistent in setting limits, or if you don’t set limits, your reaction to your child’s behaviour may vary depending on how you feel at the time. When you’re feeling good, you let him/her jump on the couch without saying anything. But on a day when you are tired or in a bad mood, you get angry with your child. The child no longer understands anything and it becomes insecure for him. That’s why it’s best to set clear and consistent limits at all times. Limits give them a kind of manual of what they can do.

It makes him/her feel secure.

Doctor Victoria Dumont