As most people recognise, children are not simply little adults; so it is not surprising that their feelings and emotions present differently as well.
In the first years of life, children start to development a sense of self, and along with this self-consciousness, emotions develop as well. The complexity of feeling and emotions evolve over time, with the addition of new verbal and physical expressive modes. Correctly interpreting young children’s feelings and emotions needs to take into account their limited emotional vocabulary. Their reduced understanding of psychological dynamics is governed by their developmental age, fledgling capacities and by a limited range of life experiences.
Despite their evident limited ability to communicate, they can sense and understand more than what seems apparent to parents. This is a normal asymmetry that exists between “expressive” and “receptive” language components in early years. Some children may talk freely about their feelings from early on, while others are reluctant or sometimes unable to. They may use words with different meanings, exhibit behaviours that obscure the meaning or express their needs through somatic symptoms.
Understandably, parents may find it difficult to interpret or understand these various expressions of their child’s feelings and behaviours. Hence seeking external help to decode your child’s feelings and emotions is not trivial or uncommon. Furthermore, it may be particularly important as unrecognised or untreated childhood anxiety or sadness is linked with higher rates of Anxiety Disorders and Depression in later life.
Assisting children to express and understand their feelings, acknowledging their experiences and validating their feelings, are all important steps in improving their emotional well-being, providing them with lifelong skills to navigate their emotional landscape.
Life regularly presents challenges that may impact emotional development, such as traumas, parental separation, loss of friends, bullying or sibling rivalry, just to mention a few. Depending on the child’s temperament and the intensity and frequency of these stressors, levels of emotional distress may necessitate professional help. The goal of treatment is to improve the child and parents’ understanding of the feelings and behaviour, acknowledging rather than avoiding it and then developing individual or family strategies to manage the issue in a constructive manner.
A child’s ability to understand and manage their own feelings is an important foundation in building a strong and coherent self-identity which, in turn, is a cornerstone for resilience in future endeavours.