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Exploring Feelings

Tips for healthy social and emotional development

How can you help children with their emotions?

Listen, pay attention to them and tune into cues such as their facial expressions and their body language.  Notice their behaviours, are they speaking less, do they seem withdrawn, angry or sad.

Understand that behind every behaviour is a feeling.  Ask yourself what is it that they are trying to tell me about this behaviour? Could they be worried about something,  frustrated or frightened?

Have little conversations with them. Be curious, give them time to respond and reassure them it’s OK to talk about what’s on their mind.

If they struggle to explain what is happening you can use toys or puppets as a way of helping them talk about what is on their mind. Drawing is also a great way to explore emotions with children. Reading picture books and pointing to the character’s feelings is a very effective way to help children identify feelings in themselves and others.


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Talk to your child and show them new ways to manage their emotions. Tell them how you cope with feelings, help them problem-solve and suggest and practice ways they can manage next time they are struggling with a big feeling.
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When children learn to express their feelings when they are young, they are off to a great emotional start!

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Exploring feelings helps children’s social and emotional development.

When kids are helped to explore feelings and understand emotions in themselves and others they are developing their emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent kids have increased empathy towards others, improved social interactions and ultimately better behaviour. This all improves their chances of better lifelong mental health.

Parents are key in developing their child’s emotional intelligence

If infants experience a safe and secure early attachment with primary caregivers who are nurturing and predictable, then the child is off to a great start.  The parent-child relationship is where emotional intelligence in kids forms because it’s through experiences and relationships with others that kids learn about emotions.

Children just like adults, get angry, frustrated, scared and anxious and often it’s their behaviour, rather than their words that convey these emotions.

Behaviours such as tantrums, avoidance, crying, arguing etc can be challenging and confusing for parents. If you can take a moment to consider “what is my child feeling right now?”  this helps uncover the feelings underneath the child’s behaviour. When you can give the child words for feelings,  you are teaching the child lots about feelings.

The next step is to try and help them learn to communicate and cope the next time they experience those feelings.

Although parents are key to helping kids’ emotional intelligence, other adults who may be around can be a great source of help too. Grandparents, carers, teachers, counsellors and therapists can all help children learn about and cope with their emotions.

When children are helped to express their emotions – they learn skills to cope with their feelings.


Sending the message to children that it is OK to talk about how we feel begins by talking about our feelings. This normalises talking about feelings and gives children the words to use when big emotions arise.

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Underneath every behaviour, there is a feeling

From the time they are infants, children begin to express their emotions through their behaviours. They will cry when they feel hungry, tired or uncomfortable and they depend on their parent or caregivers to respond to them and soothe them.

 If they are excited or happy they may laugh or lift their arms to be picked up. When parents laugh and smile with their baby, the baby learns about positive emotions.

As they grow, children begin to express their feelings in new ways.  As toddlers, they will show their unhappy emotions with behaviours such as tantrums, clinging,  whining or refusing to co-operate.

As children grow older and begin to understand more about the world, new feelings might emerge such as worry or fears and behaviours such as not wanting to separate to go to sleep or school might emerge.


Feelings Charts to explore feelings

An easy way to begin to teach young children the words for feelings is to use a Feelings Chart. A typical feelings chart will have a range of photographs or drawings of different emotions. The more colourful and obvious the emotions the better children will be able to identify them.

You can make your own by cutting out pictures of feelings from magazines. Ideally start with basic feelings such as happy, sad, angry, scared, worried, calm, excited, silly and disgusted.

Paste the photographs onto a large piece of cardboard and underneath each picture write in clear letters the name of each feeling.

If you would prefer a ready-made feelings chart our Dealing in Feelings –My First Feelings Chart is an ideal emotions chart for exploring and teaching feelings to preschoolers. The chart contains 12 feelings that are readily recognised by very young children. It is illustrated with photographs of cute animal expressions and is based on our award-winning book Feelings and Me. Kids love looking at the animals and naming their feelings!

How to use a Feelings Chart

Once you have your Feelings Chart, keep it handy so you can use it daily.  When using one at home you could try fixing it to your fridge with a magnet or pin it to a pin-up board.

In a preschool or classroom,  placing it where children can see it at their eye level is important. You can also have one that you can use at a table or hold up in front of the group.


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Girl pointing to feelings on chart



Feelings Check-ins

ANother way to explore feelings is to have a feelings check-in. Ask your child to point to the feeling photo that shows how they are feeling that day.

Name the feeling for them, because this helps teach feelings words. Point to how you are feeling too!

You can involve the entire family in this check-in. If you are in a classroom, ask each child to take a turn using the feelings chart to check-in as they come into the classroom each day.

Feelings charts are a simple but very effective way of developing emotional literacy in children and an ideal way to teach kids about feelings.

Children and Divorce

The decision to divorce is never easy and its impact on the family unit is always a major one.

Children are frequently confused and distressed when divorce occurs. All children respond differently, however it is normal for children to show a range of emotional reactions to such a significant and stressful life event.

Some children may become withdrawn and sad. Some become anxious, whilst other children may externalise their distress and act out or become non-compliant and angry.

Younger children may regress and behaviours that had previously not been a problem such as sleeping, separating and eating may become challenging again. All of these reactions are normal when the security of a child’s family is so significantly changed.

However, there are steps that adults can take to lessen the emotional impact of divorce on children.

Be a Calm Role Model

Whilst on the inside you are likely feeling a range of very strong emotions yourself, it is important that you try and model calmness around your children. If you are inconsolable with sadness or consumed with rage, your children will be negatively impacted by your distress.  It’s important to seek emotional support from other adults, not from your children



 Accept your Child’s Emotions

Just as you are experiencing a range of strong emotions so is your child. Talk to your child about the situation and where you can, try and answer their questions. Let them know that you understand and accept their feelings and how hard it is for them. You don’t have to have all the answers yet, but just listening and acknowledging that it is ok to talk about their feelings will help.

Keep to Routines

Routines are important because they help children predict what will happen next. This is especially the case for infants and toddlers who don’t have language skills yet. When children have regular and predictable routines they feel safe and secure.

Divorce will almost inevitably impact your child’s routine because there may be changes to where they live and new shared parenting arrangements.  Try and keep a consistent routine, particularly at bedtime and mealtimes.

For more tips, this guide to Children and Divorce  provides some helpful strategies for parents to help their children cope with a divorce. Children and Divorce.