Feelings by Age
What your child should be able to understand and express, by age
By Patience Domowski, LCSW
Age 0-1: Baby can express sadness by crying, anger by screaming, and happiness by smiling and laughing. Some babies can express surprise too with a facial expression, often following by happy smile or crying depending on how they feel about the surprise. Babies usually respond to their parents and other caregivers emotions and reactions such as being more fussy if they sense mom is upset, or laughing when big sister makes a funny face at them. [Known emotions: Happy, Sad, Angry, sometimes Surprise]
Age 2-4: These little ones are just learning how to talk to express their feelings. Parents can teach them to name their feelings such as saying “I’m Happy!” or “I’m Mad!” when they are acting like they feel that way with their behaviors or facial expressions. Often these kids have very strong opinions and feelings and may show big emotions like anger and disappointment in the form of tantrums and meltdowns and excitement or anger in screaming. Parents can try to have their child say how they feel. Parents can also model this by naming their own feelings so the child learns which emotion goes with which term. For example “Daddy is sad right now because you aren’t listening and putting on your shoes.” “Mommy is so happy to see you after a long day at preschool!”
Some strategies for calming child is to teach them to take deep breaths, give themselves a hug or ask for a hug, and taking a break (such as child going to a private area to calm down, or parents and older siblings leaving them alone in one area until they are calm). Teaching these skills when the child is not upset is helpful so they are ready to use the skill when needed. Parents can also model these strategies themselves by doing and naming them. For example “Mommy is angry right now because you made a big mess when I asked you not to. I’m going to take a break and calm down. I’ll be right back.” or “Daddy is really disappointed you didn't make a good choice and hit your brother. I’m going to take a deep breath.”
Also if the child resists using a strategy to calm down, parents can offer an incentive such as use of a toy or a treat for calming quickly. Often it’s best to ignore screaming and tantrum behaviors until the child calms (if they are too upset to reason with) and then praise them when they are calm and divert to something else. At the preschool age some children are more verbal and understanding than others so it will vary based on your child’s language ability to be able to talk out the feelings and handle them appropriately. [Known emotions: Happy, Sad, Anger, Surprise, Excited, Love, Scared, sometimes Disappointed, Frustrated]
Age 5-7: These early school agers should know the names of most common emotions by now and be able to do some calming strategies. Parents should continue to encourage them to name their feelings and model handling their feelings too. These children may also be recognizing how their actions affect others’ feelings too. Some kids are very sensitive to recognizing others feelings while others are more oblivious. Helping them be aware of how their behaviors and feelings impact others is important. For example if they are mad and hit their sister, it can make their sister feel sad. Or if they are jealous and take their friends toy, the friend may be angry. Expanding their understanding of emotions can grow beyond the basic feelings to more specifics like Happy vs Proud specifically, or Angry broken down into disappointment, frustration, or fear. There are many games and flashcards/posters to use to teach the various emotions. Having children learn what each feeling is called, what it looks like on someone’s face and body, as well as what can cause that feeling is really important for them to grow in emotional intelligence. [Known feelings: Happy, Sad, Scared, Mad, Nervous, Surprised, Excited, Proud, Loved, Disappointed, Frustrated. Maybe: Jealous, Anxious]
Ages 8-10: These kids should be pretty familiar with most emotions. They may continue to express their feelings in acting out ways, but should know some strategies for coping and calming down. If they still struggle they may need to see a specialist to help. They should be more aware of other people’s feelings and be able to offer comfort to others if needed. They should be able to name an experience that would cause a feeling. For example “If my brother messes up my lego creation, I would be mad” or “If my friend got a new toy and I didn't, I would be jealous”. [Known feelings: Happy, Sad, Mad, Scared, Surprised, Anxious, Excited, Proud, Disappointed, Frustrated, Jealous, Loved, Uneasy, Annoyed, Nervous]
Ages 11-13: Preteens are hitting that hormonal puberty stage where their feelings may be all over the place. They may be getting upset and angry for no clear reason and acting out more than usual. Helping them realize its their hormones that are out of whack, not that the world is against them may be helpful in helping them calm their reactions. They may need more space and understanding as they navigate this difficult time. Parents should be understanding but also not allow them to be disrespectful either. Often preteens need time and space to calm down and think through their feelings and when they are in a better mood often talking about it can help. [Known emotions: at this age they should know most if not all the emotions, but may struggle to differentiate specific breakdowns of feelings such as anxious versus scared].
Ages 14-18: Teens should be able to name and know all the emotions and may admit to struggling with certain ones specifically- like anxiety or anger. They should know some coping strategies to calm down and be able to manage their extreme feelings. If they are extremely up and down with mood it can be a sign of a problem and they may need expert help (ask your doctor or therapist). While it’s normal to feel all the emotions at some point the teen should likely not be all over the place severely such as excitement to furious in a few minutes, for example. As they mature they should be better handling their emotions and learning how to regulate their responses. [Known emotions: All of them. They may have slang terms for some feelings].
Overall it's important to teach children of any age the names of feelings as well as how to recognize them (by facial expression and body language) in themselves and in others. It’s also important for children to learn what causes what feelings. After they learn those basic skills then they can learn calming and coping strategies to feel better such as taking a deep breath when angry or anxious (it tells your brain and body to relax), taking a break (such as walk away, go to room to calm down ,etc). After the child is calm then they can work on a strategy to solve the problem! Even positive emotions like excitement can cause problem behaviors if the child gets too silly, or screams, gets super energetic, etc and may need to calm down. Learning when and where to act appropriately is helpful too. Such as its okay to be silly when playing, or loud when outside, but not during library time at school, for example. There are many books, games, flashcards, posters, etc available for teaching these skills. Look online for ideas. Also realize that if your child has any developmental delays or autism than often these skills will be very delayed and may not come naturally- they may have to be specifically and deliberately taught. For example most children can recognize when their parents are angry, or their friend is upset, but a child with a delay or autism may be completely clueless.
If your child is struggling beyond reasonable expectation seek out help from their pediatrician, school guidance counselor, or a child behavioral therapist.
Some online printable resources:
Free Download of Various Feelings Activities
There are plenty more! Just do a search on Google or Pinterest for free printable emotions activities.
I have some books on these topics as well. "Violet" discusses Anxiety, "Brianna" discusses Depression (deep long lasting sadness), "Julian" learns about Anger, and "Lily" learns about making friends/social skills (which is related to recognizing others' feelings). They are all for sale on Amazon.