Helping Children Understand Emotions
Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia
Starting at a very young age, children feel all types of emotions. They know sadness, happiness, fear, anger, and many other feelings. Emotions tell us how we feel about different situations. They push us into action and give us the energy to stop negative experiences and gain more positive experiences. Even though children feel these emotions, they don’t always understand them. And they may not know what to do with them when they feel them.
Children in single-parent families feel lots of
different emotions, but they can be confused about what
they mean. Parents can help their children understand
their emotions. This will help you teach children to
understand some of their own emotions and show them how
they can understand more about their feelings.
How Children Feel
Over time, children in single-parent families will
feel all types of emotions. At first they will feel
shocked and puzzled when they realize there is going to
be a change in their family. Some children feel these
emotions when they realize that they live with one
parent while other children live with two parents.
Children in shock may cry for no clear reason or they
may withdraw from family or friends. Or they may try to
think things out or ask lots of questions. In any case,
children need help to understand that it is all right to
talk about how they feel. And be sure to tell them what
Many children also feel anger, fear, guilt, shame,
and relief. They may be angry at their parents for
changing their family life. Remember that when one
parent moves out of the home or dies, children may fear
that the other parent will also leave or die. In the
case of divorce or death, children may feel that they
caused the break-up of the family. They may feel that
nothing would have happened if they had acted
differently. Remind children that they didn’t cause the
death or divorce. Some children may also be ashamed or
embarrassed about their families. They may try to hide
what is happening. Help them realize that there are a
lot of single-parent families and that they can be proud
of their family. Often, some relief is mixed with all of
these negative feelings. Some children will actually
feel better in those early months after a divorce or a
death as life settles into a routine and children focus
their attention on other things.
What Parents Can Do
While children can experience these different
emotions, they don’t always understand what is happening
or know what to do when they feel this way. Parents can
help children understand more about their feelings.
Facial expressions and reactions - Children may
not understand that their faces and inside feelings are
clues to their emotions. Children may need some help to
understand how these face and body clues tell what they
To help children connect their feelings with their
body clues, try this game. Ask the children to think of
different times when they felt happy, sad, afraid, or
angry. Then pretend they are in those situations. Have
them try to describe how they feel on the inside and how
their faces feel. Feelings of happiness usually mean
smiles, laughter, and lightness. Frowns, crying, and
heavy feelings are for sadness. Fear is connected to
tension, wanting to hide, and a tight feeling in the
face. Anger can make you feel like you’re going to
explode and causes a snarling look on the face.
Understanding complex feelings - Emotions such
as guilt and shame may be very confusing to children.
They may blame themselves for the divorce or the death
of a parent. Explain to the children exactly what is
happening in their family, and this can help them deal
with these emotions. Remind children that it wasn’t
their fault. A good discussion about the death or
divorce will help children understand the real causes.
Some children are ashamed or embarrassed about living
in a single-parent family. Encourage them to look at
good things about the family. Remind them of the joy and
love and laughter that you still share. Talk with
children about positive single-parent families in real
life or in books or on TV.
Talking about feelings - Let children talk
about their emotions. It’s one of the best things that
parents can do--just give children a chance to talk.
Sometimes parents want their children to feel good about
everything, and it’s hard to face it when they aren’t
happy. You may want to ignore them when children say
harsh words about themselves or their parents, such as
“I wish I was dead,” or “I hate you!” When children have
such strong feelings, it is very important to hear what
they have to say. Give them a chance to talk. Find out
why they are so angry or sad.
Talking about feelings won’t always make things
better, but sometimes children can feel some relief just
by saying what it is that is troubling them. Most of us
have felt relief just by saying something out loud. It’s
the same for children. Sometimes talking about feelings
helps children understand what’s going on. This is also
a good chance for you to explain what is happening and
get a better understanding of what the child is
Showing our own emotions - Another way to help
children understand and deal with their emotions is to
let them see how parents cope with theirs. When parents
feel sad, ashamed, guilty, or happy, they can talk about
how they feel. This lets the child know that it’s okay
to have these feelings too. And it shows your children
useful ways to deal with them. You might say that you’re
feeling sad about things today and then suggest doing
something fun that might make you all feel better. By
seeing how you respond to these feelings, your children
can learn what to do in the same situation.
Thinking about feelings - Emotions are not
automatic. Different people will feel differently about
things. Our emotions are also formed by what we think
about different situations. When children are feeling
badly about something, encourage them to try to look at
it in a different way. The comic showed one child saying
not to look only at the bad things, but to see if there
were good things as well. There’s a good lesson there.
Especially in the case of shame and guilt, help
children to see if these emotions are reasonable. If a
child feels like he or she is to blame, ask some very
direct questions: “How did you cause this?” Help the
child see that guilt doesn’t make sense. By helping
children explore their own thinking, they may realize
that their thoughts aren’t clear or don’t make sense. By
understanding more clearly, children may realize that
blaming themselves or being ashamed doesn’t make sense.
This may help get rid of these kinds of feelings.
One of the most important messages that parents can
give their children is that their feelings are real and
okay. It is easy to let children talk about their
feelings when they’re happy and proud. When they’re
feeling angry or sad, however, it’s easier to pretend
that they don’t feel this way. Let them talk about their
feelings and help them understand them. You’ll be
helping children figure out what’s going on and how to
deal with difficult emotions.
The following questions can be used to talk with
children about feelings.
- Some kids like you say that they feel all mixed up inside. Do you ever feel like that? What do you try to do when you have confusing feelings?
- Boys and girls have lots of different feelings about their families. When you think about your family, how do you feel?
- Think about a time when you felt happy. What were you doing? How do you look when you’re happy? How do you feel on the inside?
- Think of a time when you were sad. What made you sad? How do you look and feel when you’re sad?
- Have you ever felt ashamed or guilty? Can you tell me about when people feel guilty or ashamed. What made you feel like that?
- How you feel sometimes depends on how you think about things. Can you think of a time when you felt bad and then thought about something that made you feel better? What was that like?
Cut out pictures in magazines or newspapers of people who are feeling different emotions. Make a poster of all the different kinds of feelings.
Last Updated 05/12/2009