Helping Young Children Understand Their Changing Feelings

By Goldie Millar and Lisa A. Berger, coauthors of 1-2-3 My Feelings and Me

Helping Young Children Understand Their Changing FeelingsAs caring adults, caregivers and professionals play a central and important role in helping children understand and manage their multitude of feelings. A key part of our role is empowering children with knowledge about what to expect from their feelings. We can help and support children to use this knowledge to feel better equipped to express their feelings and, ultimately, manage the inevitable difficulties and stressors that come with being human.

Discuss How No Feeling Is Permanent

It can be helpful to know (and share!) that children and adults will experience many feelings in a single day, a single hour, or even a single minute. Young children in particular can experience a range of comfortable (joy, calm) and uncomfortable (anger, fear) emotions in a short period of time. Feelings are by nature fluid—constantly growing, lessening, and shifting. Some feelings will change quickly and may be easily experienced, processed, and expressed by children and adults. Other feelings will move slowly and need time before they can be understood and articulated.

It can be a source of comfort for children to know that no feeling is permanent and that their feelings will change. In particular, children may feel better equipped to tolerate emotions—especially strong or uncomfortable ones—if they understand that the experience will not last forever and that feelings are constantly transforming. Overall, when children understand and accept that a normal and natural part of being human includes experiencing a wide range of emotions, they can better tolerate the entrance and exit of joy, sadness, boredom, excitement, and disappointment as just part of a lived experience.

Support Emotional Expression

Naming these changes when we observe them is one simple, direct, and powerful strategy to help children begin to identify when feelings change. For example, “I noticed that this morning you were feeling excited about going to school, but now I can see you are feeling a bit nervous.” Or, “You don’t seem happy right now about having to go to swimming lessons. Do you think that feeling may change and you might feel excited once you are there?” This is not to deny a child’s current feeling experience, but rather to support the understanding that feelings can change.

Another way to help children name and observe their changing feelings is to chart their moods over the course of a day or week. Adults can help children create a visual display that tracks specific feelings such as fear, anger, frustration, happiness, or calmness. The different feelings can be examined together and can spark discussion about specific patterns and about strategies that can be used to cope with identified emotions.

Another strategy, commonly called modeling, is for caring adults to share how their own feelings and reactions change over time. When adults describe, in a developmentally appropriate way, experiences where feelings have changed for them, they help children learn, feel less alone, and feel better connected to themselves and others. For example, a parent or professional could share that they were feeling a little sad when they got up this morning, but that this shifted as the day got going. Or you might share that you are excited about seeing an old friend but feel a little nervous as the time draws near.

Any and all information about feelings that we can share and talk about with young children is helpful in bringing their attention to their own internal emotional experiences. This is an important and powerful tool for knowing ourselves and developing skills to manage the multitude of feelings we experience every day. Knowing and trusting that feelings change is one vital component.

Goldie Millar,Goldie Millar, Ph.D., is a clinical and school psychologist. Since earning her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Toronto in 2003, she has worked with children in hospital, forensic, community, and educational settings. She has a deep interest in children’s mental health, emotional regulation, and evidence-based intervention strategies.


Lisa BergerLisa Berger, Ph.D., is a clinical, counseling, and rehabilitation psychologist who works with adolescents and adults in a private practice. In 2003, She received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Toronto. She has practiced in hospitals, post-secondary institutions, and community-based settings. Lisa’s professional interests include emotional health and wellness, psychological trauma, and emotion-based therapy.

123 My Feelings and MeGoldie and Lisa are coauthors of 1-2-3 My Feelings and Me

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