7 things children might say to show their emotions

We’ve all struggled to cope with the new normal under lockdown, but while as grown-ups we have learnt to identify our own feelings and can process them with the help of those around us, young children haven’t yet developed the ability to understand their emotions and let us know what is troubling them. Child psychologist Jennifer Hartstein states, "Often, kids make black-and-white statements because they aren't mature enough to articulate their real feelings -- leaving you to play detective."[1]

We’ve rounded up 7 of the things your little one might say to you and what they may mean in the context of the COVID-10 pandemic.


‘I’m bored, I have nothing to play with!’

Boredom is often an expression of sadness, particularly when you consider that little ones are missing interaction with their peers at nursery or playing with their friends on playdates. Also, consider that children might not instinctively know how to initiate their own play at home – in their early years setting, invitations to play are provided for them to explore, and while they are comfortable doing this at nursery, they may feel a little lost at home. Avoid the temptation to prescribe an activity but instead provide opportunities for your little one to explore at their own pace – we’ve shared some tips on how to do this here. And don’t give in to the temptation to use technology to stave off boredom, as this will only make your child less likely to be able to find their own entertainment in the future.

‘My tummy hurts!’

For little ones, it’s difficult to differentiate between physical and emotional symptoms, and their tummy ache might actually be butterflies, signalling that they’re anxious or nervous about something. Or, perhaps they are not looking forward to doing something and trying to get out of it – for example, if they are frightened that they might catch the virus, they may feign illness to avoid going out for their daily walk. Validate their feelings by asking them to describe their symptoms and asking if they feel any pain anywhere else – this may help them to open up about what’s causing the feeling. Try to notice any patterns as to when your child complains of pain so you can draw links to potential causes.

‘It’s too loud!’

Little ones that are anxious about something become more easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, and if your child is ordinarily sensitive to bright lights or too many noises, being in a house that is busier than they are used to may cause them to become agitated. Watch for signs of discomfort such as your child being startled by movement, flinching at loud or sudden sounds, or fidgeting with their hands. Try to make sure your little one has a space that they can retreat to where they feel calm and relaxed.

‘It’s not fair!’

If you are a parent of siblings, you may have found this period particularly challenging as your little ones adapt to being at home together. A common cause of conflict between siblings is competition for the attention and approval of their parents, which is understandably in short supply as grown-ups juggle working from home with caring for their children. Complaints of unfairness or sibling squabbles are usually signs that little ones feel insecure and want reassurance from their grown-ups that they are and will remain safe and loved.

‘I want you to carry me!’

Parents may have noted excess ‘clinginess’ in their little ones, even in those who were previously confident and outgoing. Craving physical contact or ‘whining’ for attention are signs that your child is feeling unsafe and need reassurance, understandably so during this time. If your child is displaying clingy behaviours, try to set some time aside to talk to them about what exactly is making them feel unsafe – use our 5 books to start conversations about feelings here.

‘I don’t want to/it!’

Rejecting something, for example a suggested activity or a meal, is often a sign of displaced frustration. Little ones are naturally feeling cooped up, upset that they can’t see their friends or go to their favourite places, and frustrated that they have no control over their current situation. Asking them what they would prefer will help them to consider what it is that they are really missing, which you can use to open up a conversation about what is happening and why. Helping them to understand the reasons behind the situation will also help them to understand that it won’t be forever.

‘*MELTDOWN*!’

We’re sure that all families have seen a few of these during lockdown, and it’s important to remember that while these can seem dramatic, they are an expression of emotion just like other behaviours. Often, meltdowns stem from a build up of feelings and are totally unrelated to what is happening in that moment. Aggression and anger are very often signs that your child is feeling afraid. Remaining calm and compassionate and allowing them to express their anger and frustration will usually lead to a period of affection and cooperation, where you have an opportunity to talk to your child about what scares them and reassure them that, ultimately, everything is going to be ok.


[1] https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/behavioral/decoding-your-childs-dramatic-declarations/, 27.5.20

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