As children get older, their ability to recognise, understand, express and manage a wide range of feelings develops, and their emotions are increasingly influenced by their thinking. Emotional development is a vital part of social and emotional learning and the experience of emotion includes several components:

  • feelings that children recognise and learn to name
  • physical responses (e.g. heart rate, breathing, hormone levels)
  • thoughts and judgements associated with feelings
  • action signals (e.g. a desire to approach, escape or fight).

The way children express emotions can be influenced by family and educator values and beliefs about appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing emotions. Children’s temperaments, how well their emotional needs are being met, learning from observation or experience and the extent to which families and children are under different kinds of stress also effects children’s emotional expression.

Developing emotional skills

There are three main pathways to emotional development in preschool and primary school children. Emotional development can also be quite variable among different children. For example, one child might be able to regulate their emotions but not identify them in others very well, whereas another child might find it easier to identify the need to regular emotions in others easier than in themselves.

Emotional self-awareness

Emotional self-awareness involves children’s ability to identify and understand their own emotions. As children develop, they begin to understand they can have more than one emotion when reacting to an event as long as they are similar (e.g. happy and excited). Then when self-awareness is more developed children understand they can have opposite feelings to the same situation (e.g. happy and sad the school year is ending) and understand feelings that might overwhelm them.

Recognising other people’s emotions

As children start to recognise other people’s emotions they being to take into account clues from the situation to help explain the emotion (e.g. understand that another child might be sad because they didn’t get a turn on the swing). When children become more developed, they have a more complex understanding of the interaction between emotions, situations and people (e.g. the child is sad because the swing is their favourite piece of play equipment and they really wanted a turn).

Emotion regulation

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage emotions effectively, which is vital for children to manage life’s ups and downs. As children begin to learn to manage their emotions, they start to choose appropriate behavioural responses (e.g. a child asks and waits for assistance with a difficult task). As children become more developed, they increasingly are able to manage emotions by re-thinking their goals and motives (e.g. deciding that there is no point being angry about something they can’t change).

Key points for supporting children’s emotional development

In supporting emotional development, parents and carers can pay attention to children’s feelings and notice how they manage them. Parents and carers can support children’s emotional development by:

  • tuning into children’s feelings, which involves looking at their body language, listening to what they say and how they are saying it and observing behaviour
  • acknowledging children’s feelings to help them identify emotions and understand how they work (e.g. “It sounds like you are really angry. Let’s talk about it”)
  • taking opportunities to help children recognise and understand emotions, which helps children become more aware of their own emotions as well as those of others
  • encouraging children to feel comfortable with their emotions and providing them with practise in talking about their feelings. This helps to further develop ways to manage their emotions.
  • setting limits on inappropriate expression of emotions e.g. aggressive or unsafe behaviours
  • role modelling and demonstrating ways you understand and manage emotions. This can help children learn from your example (e.g. saying “sorry, I lost my temper” and then showing how you might make amends).
  • encouraging problem-solving skills to manage emotions by helping them think of different ways they could respond. You might say, “What would help you feel brave?” or “How else could you look at this?” 

Resources

Emotional development: Suggestions for families

Children developing emotional skills: Why feelings matter

How temperament affects feelings

Baby emotions play ideas

Toddler emotions play ideas

Pre-schooler emotions play ideas

Primary school aged emotions play ideas