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Emotional Skills

Emotional skills refers to a child`s ability to deal with, manage, express and control his or her emotional states, including anger, sadness, excitement, anxiety and joy. Emotional self-regulation is an important aspect of resiliency. Children who have effective strategies for dealing with disappointments, losses and other upsetting events are much more likely to be able to bounce back from adversity than those who don`t. Managing positive emotion is also important. Success both socially and at school depends on being able to control exuberance when appropriate. An inability to regulate both positive and negative emotion has been associated with disorders such as ADHD and Conduct Disorder.

Talking feelings: the vocabulary of emotions

magine how life would be if you were unable to name any of your emotional states. Think how much harder it would be to solve problems in your life if you didn`t know whether you were feeling sad, frightened or angry. Not only would it be difficult to decide on the best course of action, but you would find it very difficult to seek help and support from other people. The ability to name a feeling is the first step towards being able to manage it. If I know I am angry, then I can apply the strategies I know for dealing with anger: taking time out, breathing deeply, or asserting myself. Without a name for the feeling, it is much harder to decide on a course of action, and I am much more likely to end up `acting out` the feeling in harmful ways.

Even adults sometimes need help to identify what they are feeling. It should not be surprising, then, that children need to be taught an affective vocabulary in order to begin to learn the complex skills of regulating and communicating about emotion.

Sad, mad, bad and glad: the four basic emotions

The simplest emotional vocabulary of all consists of four words for the four fundamental human emotions: SAD (sad, blue, gloomy), MAD (angry, irritable, furious), BAD (guilty, anxious, fearful) and GLAD (happy, joyous, peaceful, content). Although it is not clear that these four words coverallhuman emotions (surprise and disgust, for example, seem to be basic emotions that are not covered), they are nonetheless a very simple and easily understood mnemonic for children to use to label their emotions.

An important understanding for children to learn is that emotions can be mixed. So for example it is quite possible to feel sad and glad at the same time - one example is the pleasantly melancholy feeling that a sad and beautiful piece of music can evoke. One can also feel mad and glad (angry and happy) at the same time, for example in the thrill of intense competition during sport - witness the expressions of many sports stars upon winning a major event. Other examples include guilty pleasure (bad and glad), hurt (sad and mad), and depression (sad and bad). When children are experiencing difficult emotions, which they are having trouble naming, it can help to ask "how much of the feeling is asadfeeling?", "how much of it is amadfeeling" and so on. This can help draw out the complexities of the child`s emotional state.

Identifying emotions as sad, mad, glad and bad can also become the basis for teaching children basic emotional regulation skills. This page outlines basic strategies which can be taught to children for managing the difficult emotions of sadness, anger, and fear and anxiety.

Using `emoticons` to teach emotion recognition

The understanding of human facial expressions has been found to be universal across cultures. An angry, happy, sad, frightened, surprised or disgusted expression will have the same basic characteristics and will be recognised accurately regardless of the culture in which it occurs. An easy way to teach an emotional vocabulary to children is through `emoticons` - the little expressive faces which often adorn internet communications. Even without an emotional vocabulary, young children can point to a face that expresses what they are feeling. They can then learn to associate this with the appropriate word.


All feelings are OK; teaching emotional self-acceptance

Because of the social undesirability of inappropriate expressions of anger and other negative emotions, it is easy for children to form the impression that certain emotions are intrinsically `bad`. Part of teaching children an affective vocabulary should include teaching them that all emotions are OK. However, acting out those emotions in certain ways may not be. Sometimes this can be a hard distinction for children to grasp, especially in relation to anger, which is the least socially acceptable emotion to express and the one most likely to meet with consistent negative reactions from adults (see `managing anger` below for more details.) It is particularly difficult for children to learn to accept the full range of their emotional responses if the adults around them are unable to accept those emotions, or their own emotional states. Emotional self-acceptance begins with adults who genuinely accept the right of each child to his or her own sadness, fear, anger and joy, and patiently teach children how to regulate these emotions, not suppress them.

Managing anger

Most children learn to control their anger naturally as they get older. Physical expressions of aggression decline for most children between the ages of three and five. However for some children, problems with regulating anger continue into the school years and may cause social problems. There are several techniques that children can be taught to manage anger.

Recognising when I`m angry

The first step in managing anger is recognising the signs of anger and knowing when there is a danger of it `boiling over`. One way to help children learn to recognise the warning signs of an angry outburst is to draw an anger thermometer, marked with degrees of anger from 1-10, with labels going from `calm` to `annoyed` to `angry`, etc. The child can then be asked what situations they can think of in which they felt that angry, and what they noticed in their body at the time. This might include:

  • Feeling hot in the face or tummy
  • Clenched jaw
  • Shaking
  • Seeing red

You can then ask them at what point on the anger thermometer there is a danger of them losing their temper and lashing out. Note that some children are volatile and reach the explosion point very quickly. These children may find it hard to monitor their anger. The most effective approach for these children may simply be repeated reinforcement of the unacceptability of violent behaviour, with appropriate and consistent consequences.


Techniques to reduce anger

Once children can recognise the warning signs that they are getting angry, they can learn various ways of reducing the anger and preventing an outburst.

Time out

Time out means simply taking a break from the situation: walking away and taking a break until one has cooled down. Alternatively one can count slowly from 1 to 10 to allow a surge of anger to pass.

Deep breathing

Breathing slowly and deeply has a calming effect on the emotions. To implement this technique effectively, children need to practice it and get used to it beforehand. Note that fast, deep breathing actually creates anxiety, so make sure that the breath is comfortable and relaxed.

Seeking adult support

Young children who have difficulty resolving conflicts with peers alone should be encouraged to seek adult support to assist them to resolve the conflict. (See the social skills page for more information about resolving conflicts between children.)


Relaxation techniques can help children to discharge a build up of anger and tension. See relaxation below for more information.

Switching channels

One technique that has been employed with children is to get children to make television sets out of cardboard and paper, with different sheets of coloured paper to represent different feelings or "channels". Children are then taught that if they are on the `angry` channel, that they can switch over to the `calm` channel.

The `Turtle Technique`

The turtle technique is a technique from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that combines a number of anger and impulse control strategies into a simple technique that can easily be used with children as young as three or four (Robins, Schneider & Dolnick, 1977). There are four steps to the technique:

  1. Recognising that one is angry (help children to do this by getting them to identify the physical signs of anger
  2. Thinking "stop".
  3. Going into one`s "shell" and taking three deep breaths and thinking calming, coping thoughts.
  4. Coming out of one`s shell when calm and thinking of some solutions for the problem.

Teaching of the turtle technique can be enhanced by the use of a turtle puppet to demonstrate the technique and hold children`s interest. Other activities can include having children make little cardboard turtles with heads that can be retracted into their shells, and using "turtle tokens" to reward children who have coped well with a frustrating or disappointing situation. It is important to notice and reward successes as much as to assist children when things go wrong.

Effective use of the turtle technique (and other impulse control and anger management techniques for children) requires consistent reinforcement over time. If a child reacts angrily to a disappointment or playground contretemps, use the situation as an opportunity to remind him of the turtle technique, get the child to rehearse "going into his shell", and then help him to generate some solutions.

Sadness and depression

It is important to distinguish clearly between sadness and depression. Sadness is a healthy, adaptive response to loss, disappointment, or other negative experiences. Depression, although often used loosely to refer to a despondent mood, is an emotional disorder characterised by intense feelings of hopelessness, despair, and guilt, loss of pleasure and interest in life, and other symptoms that impair a person`s ability to function in the world. To qualify as a `major depressive episode`, symptoms need to persist for a period of two weeks. Due to significant changes in brain chemistry, depressed individuals cannot simply "pull themselves together" or "snap out of it". Depression can occur in childhood, and requires professional treatment, including possible pharmacotherapy. The strategies below for dealing with sadness are unlikely to be effective on their own to treat depression. However, they may be effective as part of a strategy to helppreventdepression, and they certainly will do no harm!

One way to present these ideas in the classroom is through a general discussion of sadness, with children being asked to contribute ideas about what they do when they are feeling sad to help themselves feel better.

Talk about it

One of the most simple and effective means of coping with sadness is to talk about one`s feelings with a person who is emotionally supportive, non-judgmental and caring. Encourage children to think of somebody whom they would trust enough to talk to if they felt really sad. A child who feels that there is nobody they could talk to is at risk. Try to connect such children to an appropriate adult support, such as a teacher, counsellor, or mentor.

Draw it, paint it, dance it

One of the greatest psychological resources of childhood is play. Children have natural reserves of creativity which can be harnessed to help them process painful emotions. Provide opportunities for children to draw, write, paint, dance and play.

Accept it

Remind children that sadness is OK, and that everyone feels blue from time to time. Remind them that they have felt sad in the past, and that it passed.

Don`t forget to keep doing the things you enjoy

When one feels disheartened it is easy to neglect the fun things one would do in a better mood. Social contact is particularly important.


Exercise is a natural anti-depressant. It produces endorphins, the natural `happy hormones` of the brain, as well as promoting general physical and mental wellbeing.

Challenge pessimism and `catastrophising`

One can accept that one is feeling sad without necessarily accepting the gloomy, pessimistic thoughts that may accompany the mood. Gently challenge children`s negative generalisations, such as, "Nothing ever works out for me!" by saying something like, "I know it feels like that right now, but that`s not really true you know..." Encourage them to acknowledge what they feel sad or disappointed about in the moment and express empathy, but don`t go along with pessimistic generalisations. These have been shown to be associated with depression.

Dealing with fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety covers a broad spectrum, including:

  • Normal, everyday fears, such as the fear of being rejected, looking silly, getting in trouble, or getting physically hurt.
  • Exaggerated fears or phobias. Common childhood phobias include: the dark, animals, heights, storms, water and medical procedures.
  • Shyness or social anxiety, which may or may not be clinically significant.
  • Anxiety arising from trauma, including traumatic world events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Everyday fears

Part of resiliency is the capacity to overcome fears which have arisen as the result of bad experiences. For example, a child who has had a bad experience performing in front of an audience may come to fear and avoid public performance in future. A child who can bounce back from such an experience by telling him or herself that the bad experience is past and unlikely to be repeated and "feeling the fear and doing it anyway" is demonstrating resilience (and courage!). There are several strategies that can be used to help children overcome normal fears and develop courage.

Explain the meaning of courage

Explain to children that being courageous means:

  • Doing something that one needs or wants to do despite feeling anxious or uncomfortable about it.
  • Facing hardship or pain without giving up or being overwhelmed.

But it does not mean:

  • Doing something stupid or dangerous because someone dared you to.
  • Being `tough` or showing off. Sometimes it might take courage to do something that others think is `weak` or uncool.
Praise children for being brave

Notice when children confront a fear successfully and praise them for it. Doing so repeatedly helps children to establish a view of themselves as someone who is able to confront their fears successfully. It also helps them to establish a resource of memories of being courageous that they can draw on when experiencing fear and anxiety. Adults can help them to do this reminding them of past occasions when they were afraid, but were courageous and got past their fear without negative consequences.

Use self-talk

Show children how one can bolster one`s courage by giving oneself a `pep-talk` and challenging fearful self-talk.

`Get back on the horse that threw you`

Encourage children who have had a bad experience to confront their anxiety about it happening again by going back into a similar situation soon after in order to learn that the bad experience is unlikely to be repeated.


Phobias in childhood are fairly common. Sometimes, but by no means always, such phobias begin with a frightening experience. Sometimes phobias seem to develop spontaneously for no apparent reason. Unlike adults, who recognise that their phobic reaction is unreasonable or out-of-proportion to the threat, children often do not. They also may not express their fear directly, but show it in their behaviour by avoiding feared situations, clinging to adults, crying and so on.

Phobias - in adults and children - are typically treated by a process of gradual desensitisation, in which the phobic person is supported to confront their fear in manageable doses. For example, to treat a fear of spiders, a person might at first simply be exposed to descriptions of spiders. Then, when they can cope with this level of exposure, they might be shown photographs of spiders, and so on, until they are actually capable of touching a spider without a phobic response. This process should generally be undertaken by a trained professional.


Shyness and social anxiety

People vary in their natural degree of sociability or extraversion. Some children - and adults - are naturally shy. While it is important to recognise and accept this variation, shy children do face social disadvantages as a result of their introversion. Shy people tend to have more negative self-perceptions than extraverts. They tend to have poorer health (as a result of more limited social support networks), be more lonely, and earn less money than their more socially at-ease peers. It therefore makes sense to help shy children to become more comfortable in social situations. The following are some strategies that can help:

Don`t be over-protective

It is tempting to protect shy children from situations that arouse anxiety for them. However, this is a mistake, as it tends to further reinforce the shyness and limit further social development. Parents should continue to hold reasonable expectations, and encourage their child to confront situations that arouse anxiety for them.

Set goals

Setting goals and offering rewards can help a child to gradually overcome shyness. When going into a new situation, parents can set small, achievable goals for their child and then offer a reward for achieving them.

Avoid labelling

Labelling a child as `shy` can result in the child coming to define him or herself this way and hence reinforce the shyness and the sense of being somehow `wrong`. It is better to use words like "reserved", if labels need to be used at all.

Avoid judging

Shy children are typically frightened of being judged, so making negative judgments about a child`s shy behaviour can be particularly counter-productive. Rather than attacking the child for her shy behaviour, reward her for coming out of her shell.

Don`t push too hard

Whilst it is important to gently challenge a shy child to go out of their comfort zone in order to develop confidence and social skills, pushing a child too hard can result in them being flooded with anxiety and becoming even more afraid of social situations. It can also result in a power struggle developing between the child and his or her parents. Extraverted parents in particular may have trouble understanding their child`s temperament and fall into the trap of becoming too pushy. Rather than pushing a child to come out of themselves, it is usually a more productive approach to try to foster an atmosphere of acceptance and warmth within which the child feels safe enough to start expressing him or herself spontaneously.

Teach social skills

Shy children are particularly in need of explicit teaching of social skills. See thesocial skillspage for details.

Shyness, when extreme, can constitute an anxiety disorder (Social Anxiety Disorder). This is one of the most common anxiety disorders among adults. Social Anxiety Disorder requires professional treatment.

Other anxiety disorders

Other anxiety disorders which occur in childhood include:

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):a psychological disorder in which a person develops a pathological need to perform certain ritualistic actions, such as handwashing, counting, or doing things in a certain, very specific order. It is also often accompanied by repetitive unwanted thoughts, which the rituals are intended to relieve. OCD can be a very debilitating condition, and it requires professional treatment.

Separation Anxiety Disorder:the most common childhood anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder is characterised by extreme, developmentally inappropriate fear of separation from parents or caregivers.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder:A disorder characterised by a general tendency to worry excessively about many things. Due to the general sate of anxiety, children with GAD may have trouble eating and sleeping, and may be continually stressed, irritable and restless. It is frequently associated with an exaggerated perfectionism.

Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, in some cases combined with medication.

Managing fear in an age of terror

The climate of fear created by the so-called `War on Terror` creates new mental health challenges, especially when children are exposed to images such as those which were replayed endlessly on television after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. The following are some tips for helping children to manage their anxiety in the face of frightening or traumatic world events:

  • Limit exposure to horrifying images. It is very difficult to shield children completely from the graphic media images of trauma and suffering following a terrorist attack or natural disaster, especially as children grow older. Children, like adults, may feel a curious compulsion to view such images, despite being disturbed or upset by them. Nevertheless, exposure to such footage can create serious anxiety reactions in children, especially if such exposure is repeated and/or prolonged.
  • Take time to explain events rationally to children. In doing so, it is important to take into consideration the age and level of understanding of the child and limit explanations to what can be assimilated at the child`s developmental stage. Allow children time to ask questions and express their emotional reactions.
  • Make sure children know some ways of reducing anxiety, such as the relaxation techniques outlined below.
  • Help children to feel safe by continuing normal routines, providing reassurance and explaining the very low likelihood of such traumatic events. Because of the dramatic nature of tragedies such as September 11, it is easy to forget the millions of safe flights, safe buildings and unharmed people who did not make the news.
  • Monitor anxiety levels in children, including signs such as nightmares, sleeplessness, physical symptoms like stomach upsets, tearfulness and phobias. Depression and anger can also manifest as reactions to trauma. If signs of anxiety are severe or do not disappear fairly quickly after the event, seek professional support. Be aware that in many instances, signs of traumatic reaction may not appear until several months after the initial event.


Relaxation is an important technique for managing stress, anxiety and anger, and it is a technique that can easily be taught to children. There are several techniques that can be used, although some adaptation may be required for younger children.

Breath awareness

Tension and anxiety typically cause the breath to become quicker and more shallow. Relaxation can be promoted by being aware of the breath, and allowing one`s breathing to slow down and deepen. It can help to count to five with each exhalation. This can be taught to children as a simple means to reduce anxiety. Another technique which is slightly more difficult and may require a little practice at first is `abdominal breathing`. This involves breathing using the abdominal muscles rather than the upper chest. It can be practiced by placing one hand gently on one`s belly and pushing the hand gently out with each inhalation. This should not be forced. The movement should be smooth and relaxed. For people who have become used to breathing only with their upper chest muscles, this can seem awkward and unnatural to begin with. However, if you watch a young child breathing while asleep, you will notice that this abdominal breathing is our first and most natural way of breathing.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation involves the systematic relaxation of individual muscle groups within the body. With older children, this is often best done with the child lying comfortably on the floor with their eyes closed. Quiet, meditative music can be used in the background while children are asked to focus on each muscle group in the body, first tensing and then relaxing the muscles completely. This can begin with the feet and toes, progress upwards through the shins and calves, and so on up to the head and scalp.

Younger children, who may find it hard to lie still and focus for this long, can use the `rag doll` technique (Moser, 1988), which consists of tensing the whole body while standing up, then slowly bending over forwards, loosening all the muscles and allowing the arms to dangle like a rag doll`s.

Calming imagery

Another common relaxation technique is the visualisation of pleasant imagery such as a beautiful place in nature combined with quiet, relaxing music.