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Feature Article


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 is happening.

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 are feeling.

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 thinking.

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.

Discussion Questions

The following questions can be used to talk with children about feelings.

  1. 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?
  2. Boys and girls have lots of different feelings about their families. When you think about your family, how do you feel?
  3. 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?
  4. Think of a time when you were sad. What made you sad? How do you look and feel when you’re sad?
  5. Have you ever felt ashamed or guilty? Can you tell me about when people feel guilty or ashamed. What made you feel like that?
  6. 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


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