Working with Children’s Emotions: Integrating Theory and Practice

Working with Children’s Emotions: Integrating Theory and Practice

Nelson and Russell (2016) highlight that, before children can learn to regulate their emotions, they must develop the ability to recognise and label them. The ability to recognise emotions initially involves learning the visual components of emotional expression, including facial and body/postural expressions in others. After 5 years old, children can also recognise vocal expressions of emotions (Nelson & Russell, 2011). After learning which facial expressions signal an emotion, they gradually learn how to divide these emotions into different categories or labels and, ultimately, how to map these two processes onto one another. While children start with recognising facial expressions and labelling emotions in terms of simple valence-based categories (i.e., positive/negative, happy/sad), over time they shift to more differentiated, adult-like categories (Widen & Russell, 2003). For example, pre-schoolers concept of sadness includes expressions intended to convey sadness, but also other negative expressions such as those intended to convey anger, fear, embarrassment, or shame (Widen & Russell, 2010). It is only when a child reaches 4 years of age that anger and fear are excluded from this broad “sad” category, and 7 or 8 years when this is further differentiated into separate categories of embarrassment and shame. Finally, it is not until 9 years that most children can label the facial expression of disgust (Widen, 2013).

So what does this research mean for our work with children? As the research suggests that young children have difficulty recognising and labelling their emotions, we may need to develop more flexibility in our therapeutic practices when working with children’s emotions. For example, we may need to pay more attention to the verbal labels that we use to describe emotion with younger children, or we may need to incorporate creative visual techniques that allow them to illustrate and describe their feelings. Our recent free workshop on working with children’s emotions briefly discussed some of these techniques and how research, such as that outlined above, can inform therapeutic practice. As practitioners working with children, we feel it is essential to have a good understanding of children’s emotional development, particularly as this is tied to other aspects of their cognitive and social development, and the likelihood of mental health issues. On June 30th we are presenting a further, more comprehensive workshop on working with children’s complex emotions. It will incorporate both the extensive therapeutic knowledge of Catherine Sanders, and the theoretical knowledge of Nicole Nelson, a developmental psychologist from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Please see our website at www.bowerplace.com.au for more information or contact Carly or Sara on 08 8221 6066 for bookings.

Nelson, N. L., & Russell, J. A. (2011). Preschoolers’ use of dynamic facial, bodily, and vocal cues to emotion. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 110(1), 52-61.
Nelson, N. L., & Russell, J. A. (2016). Building emotion categories: Children use a process of elimination when they encounter novel expressions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 151, 120-130.
Widen, S. C. (2013). Children’s interpretation of facial expressions: The long path from valence-based to specific discrete categories. Emotion Review, 5(1), 72-77.
Widen, S. C., & Russell, J. A. (2010). Differentiation in preschooler’s categories of emotion. Emotion, 10(5), 651.
Widen, S. C., & Russell, J. A. (2003). A closer look at preschoolers’ freely produced labels for facial expressions. DevelopmentalPpsychology, 39(1), 114.