Understanding the Emotions of a Child

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents and as adults is to forget what it was like to be a child. The most dangerous and often damaging assumption we make as adults, as we look at the emotions of a child, is to assume that small people have smaller emotions.

When we look at the problems that children have, we unconsciously compare them to our own problems. We see how small and insignificant their crises are compared to ours. The biggest mistake we make, however, is to assume that their small crises create small emotions.

Childish Emotions

If anything, children’s emotions are even greater than those of adults. Children are more like animals. They feel extreme emotion over some issue and then it will usually be forgotten within minutes. Still, while they are in it, the feelings are very big and the crisis, whatever it may be, is also very real.

This is what we need to understand about the emotions of a child. What we can do about it is recognize how important a child’s feelings are to that child in the moment. We need to take those feelings seriously and let the child know that we take them seriously.

We need to try to put ourselves in their little shoes and recognize that they are feeling real emotional pain. However small the cause of the feelings, the feelings are real and children need for the significant adults around them to treat those feelings as the big feelings they are.


I don’t know that there is any training or educational process one can go through in order to help understand a child’s emotions. We can learn about the stages of development in children and that may help understand the sorts of things they are dealing with at different stages. But no two children are alike and not all children deal with the same issues at the same developmental stage.

What parents, teachers, and other significant adults need to do is remember how things were for them when they were young. Remember what was important to you when you were a pre-schooler. Remember the things that caused you pain as you began grammar school and beyond.

Remember when you lost your first pet or a relative died. Remember when you had your first serious injury and how you thought the pain would never go away. Remember the first time your heart was broken or the first time you were teased unmercifully. Remember when you were bullied. Remember the things that were so embarrassing that you thought you would die. You wanted to die.

The Dangers of Underestimating a Child’s Emotions

It seems that children are caught in a modern dilemma. On the one hand, many children are overprotected. They are not allowed to go out and play freely but are watched constantly, sending the message that the world is a dangerous place.

On the other hand, children are more isolated, watching lots of TV, being on the computer, texting or talking on the phone, but not really going out to play with one another. The protection itself becomes isolating.

This lack of normal human contact, of normal interactions with friends, may be partly responsible for the fact that suicides are occurring in younger and younger children. Parents and teachers are not accurately reading the emotions of children. They don’t really know when the children are in emotional crisis.

As kids get older they may become less communicative, at least with their parents and other adults. But parents, teachers, and other significant adults need to become more communicative with these kids. Talk to them. Ask them how they’re doing. Really focus on them and sincerely take an interest in their lives.

It’s difficult to fully understand the emotions of young children. They often don’t understand their feelings themselves. But it’s easy to take the children’s feelings seriously, to recognize that what may seem small and unimportant to us may be huge to them. Step into their shoes and try to experience some empathy. The dividends in healthy relationships now and eventually healthy adults will be worth it.