Helping Children Understand Their Emotions

Like an iceberg, the bulk of behaviour for both children and adults is found below the surface: it is what gives rise to the part that is visible. Behaviour is triggered from feelings, which stem from the more deeply rooted needs of a person. 


These are not needs like, “I need candy/ I need a holiday.” Basic human needs consist of things like autonomy, safety, security, trust, empathy, understanding, adequate sleep and nutrition, a sense of belonging and inclusion, competency, respect and love.

This iceberg theory does not only apply to children. It can apply to everyone whose basic needs are not being met. The behaviour may appear to be unacceptable or unexpected or seen as an overreaction.

The reaction you are observing occurs subconsciously.

The anger iceberg is helpful to control your reactions to others. For instance, let’s assume that you see someone’s angry actions and you then become angry. By using the anger iceberg, it will quickly become apparent the other person has feelings causing him or her to behave in this irrational manner.

It is much more difficult to become angry with someone when you recognize they are showing anger out of fear, insecurity, jealously, or hurt. When one recognizes this, it is much easier to use empathy to understand their situation. This will then enable you to help that person deal with their anger, or at least help you to stay calm in this situation.

With looking at the iceberg theory and children’s behaviour you can often use the STAR approach

Setting – where does the behaviour occur?
Trigger – what are the signals or stimuli that sets off a specific action?
Action – what is the behaviour that actually occurs?
Response – what happens next? (This is often the bit that you can control or at least manage)

Look at the FUNCTION of a behaviour. For example; a child may spit because it’s their only way to draw attention to their needs, or it’s a way of getting out of a situation that they are uncomfortable with, or they may just have a horrible taste in their mouth.

Practical ways you can help your child understand their emotions:

  • Explain the feeling using words your child can understand
  • Teach your child ways they can deal with their emotions, let them pick how they like to deal with their feelings. Do they like to have hugs? Do they like to be by themselves?
  • Praise children who talk about feelings


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