In focus: Understanding children's emotions and behaviour

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child. We also appreciate that every child is unique and has different strengths, vulnerabilities and experiences that shape their health and development.

For positive mental health, children need to learn to understand and express their emotions. All emotions have important roles, and children need to be able to understand and manage them to thrive throughout their lives.

As a parent or other adult who cares for children, there are things you can do to support children to understand their emotions and develop positive ways of coping with feelings and managing behaviours.

If you haven’t already, you might like to read Understanding children’s mental health before continuing with this resource. It introduces topics like what child mental health is, why mental health is important for children and what positive mental health looks like in children.

Why are emotions important?

All emotions are essential in life. Our ability to experience different emotions is important for our safety and survival, our development, forming relationships with other people and feeling connected or getting help when we need it.

Emotions are a powerful form of communication, often revealing important information to ourselves and those around us. For example, if we’re sad and show that through a frown or tears, others might notice we need some care and support.

Children can express their emotions through their facial expressions, their body, their behaviour, and, particularly for younger children, through play. Being curious about these outward signs of emotions can give us clues about how a child is feeling and what they might need.

For children, experiencing a range of emotions plays an important part in their development and wellbeing. For example:

  • When a child experiences happiness, it encourages them to join in activities they enjoy and connect with other people, such as playing with friends.
  • Feeling fear can help children make choices that keep them safe – like staying away from unfamiliar dogs.
  • Surprise can make a child more alert and curious about unexpected things. It helps them adapt to change.
  • Feeling anger can motivate a child to stand up for themselves if they are unfairly treated.
  • Feeling guilt can help children develop empathy and kindness, as they think about what behaviours are acceptable and change those that are unacceptable.

Helping children identify, express and cope with all their different emotions supports good mental health throughout life.

When a child has positive mental health they feel good about themselves most of the time and will be free to feel content, happy and connected. This doesn’t mean they are always or only happy.

Children with good mental health generally experience the whole range of different emotions that are part of life: happiness, excitement and joy; but also sadness, frustration, boredom, disappointment and many others.

So, it’s important that parents support children as they learn to understand, express and cope with all their different emotions, including the uncomfortable ones.

To support your children, it’s helpful if you:

  • get to know your child’s temperament
  • know that children need adults to help them understand their emotions and learn to manage them; and
  • understand that your children’s behaviour is often their way of communicating how they’re feeling and what they need when they don’t have the words to explain it.

Your child’s temperament

Every child is born with their own unique characteristics, including their temperament.

Temperament is the term for a person’s nature or general mood, especially as it affects their behaviour. It is a combination of mental, physical and emotional characteristics that we are born with that shapes how we naturally react and behave.

Your child’s temperament influences how they generally respond to things that happen in their life. For example, some children are naturally easy-going and open to new experiences and people, while other children find it difficult to transition into new environments or might need a lot of support and guidance before they’ll try new things.

Temperament can also be described as how a child:

  • reacts to things that are exciting or to not getting something they want (their ‘reactivity’)
  • can control how they express emotions, including their behaviours (their ‘self-regulation’)
  • shows feelings; and
  • feels about new people and experiences (their ‘sociability’).

There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ temperament. And many other factors in a child’s life interact to shape how they express emotions and behave.

Children commonly have a different temperament to their parent/s and any siblings. It’s important to get to know your child’s unique temperament and notice how it differs to yours, and that of other caring adults in their life. For example, an outgoing parent might realise their reserved child needs more support in forming friendships and coping at parties or events than they did themselves as a child.

As you get to know your child’s temperament, you can see their unique qualities and the ways they cope with their feelings, especially in stressful or different situations. Over time, this helps you work out the best ways to support them in learning to manage their emotions and behaviours.

How children learn to manage emotions

Emotional regulation is a skill. To develop it, children need a lot of support from trusted adults who will nurture them while they experience the sometimes uncomfortable nature of their feelings. Over time, their awareness of and ability to understand and manage (or ‘regulate’) their emotions grow and develop.

Although it does vary with temperament, generally children are not born with the ability to regulate (understand and manage) complex emotions and need caring adults to help them learn how to do it.

Most children are just beginning to gain control of their emotions and behaviours as toddlers, but the ability to regulate our emotions is a long process that continues into adulthood.

Children learn how to understand and express emotions through warm and responsive back-and-forth interactions with their parents and other people.

It’s like a game of tennis – one person serves and the other returns and so the ‘ball’ goes back and forth. So, when you respond to your baby’s cues – like crying, or cooing, or trying to make eye contact – and you interact with them, you’re helping them develop their skills to cope with emotions. When your toddler points at something it’s a serve – they’re showing you their interest in something. You might return by looking at and talking about that thing e.g. ‘Oh, yes, there’s a bird up in the tree!’ If your preschooler climbs up on the sofa beside you with their favourite book, your return might be putting your arm around them and reading together.

With each interaction – every serve and return – a child’s mental health is strengthened.

‘Every single time that you interact with a child, you’re laying down those neural pathways that will benefit them throughout their entire life. And I think that’s really powerful.’

Dr Sally Staton, Senior Research Fellow, Queensland Brain Institute

Behaviour as communication

Young children don’t yet fully understand their emotions or have the language to explain what they’re feeling, so often their behaviour is a form of communication. For example, a ‘tantrum’ is not something a toddler plans or chooses to do – it’s a sign their body is overwhelmed by a need or feeling that they can’t explain to you.

Behaviours such as refusing to go to school, sleep problems, suddenly not wanting to play sport or do something they used to love, or being destructive with their toys, can be signs a child is struggling to understand and express some big emotions. They’re trying to let you know ‘something is not right for me’ and the only way they can show you is through their behaviour.

If you imagine an iceberg, your child’s behaviour is just the tip of it – the bit you can see above the waterline. Try to understand what’s below the surface – what’s going on for your child, and their emotions and thoughts, which make up that big chunk of the iceberg that’s less obvious.

‘… it’s more about the conversation after, when things have calmed down – not in the heat of the moment. And making sure we’re labelling the feelings that are there, but also digging deeper, like the iceberg idea. Just because I’m seeing “angry” doesn’t mean that angry is really the only feeling.’

– Jess, parent of one

Instead of focusing on the behaviour that you can see, play detective and explore what could be behind it. Be curious and take a few minutes to think about:

  • What might your child need or be trying to tell you?
  • Could there be a physical/biological reason behind their behaviour – are they tired, hungry, overstimulated, sick (or getting sick) or uncomfortable (e.g. too hot)?
  • What’s going on in your child’s world right now? For example, have there been big changes in routines? Has a parent been in hospital or away? Could they be having friendship issues at school?


Helping your child understand and express their emotions

When children know their emotions are understood and respected, they are more likely to develop healthy ways to manage their feelings and can build trusting relationships with their parents and others.

Children need their parents and other caring adults to help them understand their different emotions and how to express them in positive ways, so that they can:

  • know and trust their feelings, and know that expressing emotions is healthy
  • learn to manage big emotions like sadness or anger
  • understand other people’s emotions and behaviours
  • develop skills to cope with stresses in the future; and
  • develop healthy relationships.

If you can support your child to name and understand big feelings like worry or frustration when they are young, they develop positive ways to express and manage emotions and are more likely to have positive mental health when teenagers and adults.

The best way to help your child understand their emotions is by connecting with them as they experience all their different feelings.

How you do that – and how you talk about emotions – depends on your child’s age and understanding.

  • With toddlers you might just name the emotion – like ‘You look so sad. That really hurt didn’t it?’
  • With preschoolers, you might help them name the emotion or the experience by offering a suggestion. For example, ‘It looks like you feel …’ or ‘Maybe you were feeling a bit …’
    You can also talk about how emotions feel in their body. For example, you might say ‘You seemed really cross. What do you think that was about?’ or ‘How did you feel in your body when that happened?’
  • With primary school-aged children and pre-teens you can have more complex conversations about all our different emotions, why we feel them, and safe ways of expressing them. Rather than naming emotions, focus on showing you understand and empathise – for example instead of saying ‘You look angry’ you might just say ‘Oh, how annoying’.

Talking with children about big emotions while they’re experiencing them usually isn’t helpful. Acknowledging and naming the emotion at the time helps – but talk about it later, when your child is not overwhelmed by the emotion.


What you can do

  • Look at your child’s facial expressions, body language (are they all tensed up, or floppy?) and actions – they are good clues to their reactions and emotions.


    Getting to know your child’s unique temperament and how they react to things or people will help you notice what they might need and recognise emotions before they appear as behaviour.


    Sometimes just naming it – like ‘It looks like you’re a bit frustrated that we can’t go into that shop today’ – helps your child feel understood and can open up a conversation about how they’re feeling.


    Making time to connect with your child – through play, a cuddle, kicking a ball or cooking dinner together – might be what they need to feel calmer or open up and talk to you about how they’re feeling. Those moments also help ‘fill up’ your child’s emotional cup – which helps them cope better with challenges and not get overwhelmed by big feelings.

  • Validating means making sure your child knows it’s OK to feel the way they do. It can be through your facial expression, rubbing their back or just sitting with them, or saying a few words like: ‘Yeah, that’s hard’.


    It’s important not to dismiss or encourage children to ignore any emotions. All emotions are normal experiences and have important roles so it’s important that children learn to recognise feelings like fear, worry and anger, and can manage them so they aren’t overwhelming.


    If a child is afraid of something, for example, it’s not helpful to say ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’. Even if you know, from your adult experience, that what your child is afraid of isn’t real, their feeling of fear is real and can be very strong. It’s important to let your child know their feeling is accurate – by saying something like ‘I can see you’re scared; I’m here’ or ‘You seem pretty worried’.

  • Showing your child you understand what they’re feeling helps them feel loved and safe.


    Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and imagine what they might be feeling. Think back to when you were a child – for example, what were you afraid of, and how did that make you feel? That helps you connect with their emotion. The reason behind their anger or upset may seem small and unimportant to you – perhaps the way someone looked at them in class or they got tackled playing footy and their peers laughed – but it could feel big to them.


    As well as eye contact and nodding to show you’re listening and understanding your child, try statements like:

    • ‘I understand, you wanted to do it by yourself’
    • ‘I would have felt angry too’
    • ‘Oh, that must have been disappointing’
    • ‘Yeah, that would be scary for lots of people’
    • ‘I can see you’re really upset’


    It’s important not to try to problem solve right now, or try to distract or push your child to ‘move on’. They need time and support to process what they’re feeling. Once they’re calm, you might ask ‘What do you need from me?’ or ‘Any ideas what might help?’

‘When my children were younger, sometimes they were a little bit shut down, so they just looked really withdrawn and … what I chose to do was just sit next to them … I felt like my presence might support them to feel safe. Being around and being available for them is quite important while they still try to figure out their emotions or what’s going on for themselves.’

Wei, parent of two, Kaurna Yerta
  • After you’ve validated, and empathised with, how your child is feeling it might be necessary to remind them of your family rules or about behaviours that are not OK.


    For example: ‘I understand you feel angry when X won’t let you play with those toys. But it’s not OK to hurt people. We need to think of what you can do when you feel that anger in your body.’

  • When both your child and you are feeling calmer, make time to talk to them about what they experienced and how it felt. How you do that will depend on your child’s age and development.


    Start by being curious. Depending on your child’s age and understanding, you might ask your child ‘What do you think was going on?’ or ‘Do you have any ideas why that happened?’


    Often children know that their behaviour was not OK, but they don’t know why they did something or might be embarrassed or afraid to tell you. Try not to prod too hard or shame them, as this can get in the way of a child sharing their feelings with you.


    Gentle questions, and allowing space for your child to try to explain what they were feeling, will let them know you want to understand and support them.

  • To understand and support your child’s emotions and behaviours it’s important to see your whole child. It can be helpful to take some time to think about what’s going on in your child’s world right now and how it might be impacting on their thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself:

    • Have there been any big changes in your family’s life lately – like moving house, or a new baby?
    • Have you or someone in the family been experiencing health issues?
    • Is your family dealing with big or ongoing stresses, or relationship difficulties?
    • Could there be something happening at school that’s upsetting them?


    You might also want to take a few minutes to be curious about the environment or situation your child was in. Ask yourself:

    • What was happening just before the behaviour started?
    • Is there a pattern or trigger (time of day, person, place) that seems to set it off?


    This sort of detective work might help you understand your child’s behaviour and come up with strategies to help address it.

  • One important way children learn about emotions and how to cope with them is by watching how their parents and other people around them handle challenging situations. Think about what your child sees and hears when you are feeling stressed, disappointed or angry – what’s your facial expression, your tone of voice, your behaviour?


    If you have young children, naming your feeling and describing how it feels in your body helps build their understanding of emotions.


    With older children you can talk about how you react when you feel sad or angry, and what you do to cope with stresses, for example walking away to cool down, talking with someone you trust, or taking some deep breaths.


    It’s also good to talk to your child when you don’t model the best ways of expressing your feelings or respond to something challenging the way you would have liked to. It’s good for children to know that no one is perfect and we’re all learning. What’s most important is to go back and ‘repair’ if you’ve overreacted – to tell your child you’re sorry that you ‘lost it’ or didn’t manage things well. And – depending on your child’s age and the situation – you might brainstorm together some better ways to respond to challenging situations and feelings.


    If you weren’t parented well or didn’t learn about emotions as a child, it can be hard to recognise or manage your own feelings when they come up – which can lead to feeling discouraged or guilty. Call a parent helpline for support if you’re finding it hard to cope with your own feelings or your child’s emotions or behaviours, or check out the resources at the bottom of this page for more information about understanding and supporting children’s emotions.

To support your child’s emotions and mental health you need to look after your own.

Taking care of yourself will ensure you’re better prepared to notice how your child is feeling and coping, so you’re best able to support them. And remember that children notice and learn from modelled behaviours – so watching you take care of yourself and use positive coping strategies will benefit them too.

How other parents support their children’s emotions

We asked a group of parents how they support their children to learn about and express emotions. Here are some of the things they shared.

  • ‘Whenever the children are behaving with any emotions, I just try to name it. So I name it twice: one is when they’re actually in the emotion and one is after when they calm down. Sometimes when they’re in big emotions they can’t hear me. And sometimes I do modelling as well, like “I’m frustrated” – I actually show it with my facial expressions, my actions and sometimes I’m just naming how I feel.’

    – Wei, parent of two

  • ‘The other night I was at dinner with my son and my grandson and he (grandson) was having big emotions because some life changes were happening and it was obviously affecting him. And I was able to say “I can see that you’re upset right now” and just talk about it. And it was really beautiful. My son and grandson joined in and they had a talk about the big emotions and the stamping of the feet, and the yelling. And then my son said to my grandson, “How about we go outside and do this?” and then he said, “Yeah, OK.” And so they went outside, [my grandson] did a stomp and the yelling, and he came back and everything was OK.’
    – Emi, parent of four

  • ‘My son was aggressive and angry. [A psychologist suggested explaining how those emotions were like a volcano erupting.] So we drew a volcano, we did the volcano experiment … And then whenever he felt this anger, he knows that’s the volcano. We got a board in his room, we write down what he can do – running, tearing papers – to get that anger out of him rather than damaging something or saying bad things that hurt my feelings. So I learned some strategies. Sometimes professional advice if it’s available and [support of] good friends can help a lot.’
    – M, mum of two

  • ‘Sometimes we just need to ride out whatever big emotion it is and let it play out. And then eventually you feel them start breathing in between the big emotional release and then they breathe a little bit more … and then eventually they’re back with you. And it’s about knowing that right then and there, you can’t change anything. All you can do is keep them safe and let them know that you’re there and then you can have a chat afterwards. You can’t solve whatever’s going on when their entire brain is just stuck in that emotion. A lot of the times it will feel like a really silly thing, but to them it’s so big and so out of control and they felt so much injustice about what was going on for them.’
    – Shelly, parent of three

Learn more about children’s mental health

If you want to explore more about children’s emotions and ways parents can support them, we recommend the following resources.

For more information about supporting your child’s mental health, see the following resources in our Understanding and supporting children’s mental health series.

Emerging Minds Families also has information about various factors, experiences and events that might impact on a child’s mental health – like experiencing or engaging in bullyingexperiencing a disaster in their community, their parents’ separationchildren’s social connections and more – and what parents and other adults can do to support children’s wellbeing.

Discover more resources

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