Home icon


Children demonstrate an awareness of and the ability to identify and express emotions.

In infancy, children express their feelings through both nonverbal and verbal communication and depend on their caregivers to read and recognize their cues. Emotional expression is not developed in isolation; children’s emotional expression is related to their ability to regulate their emotions, and they heavily depend on their caregivers to help them.

In addition, emotional expression is closely linked to the cultural and societal influences of family and environment. Children’s relationships with their caregivers help them develop the ability to identify and express both their negative and positive emotions in a socially and culturally acceptable way.1

The emergence of the social smile around six to eight weeks of age is the first expression noted by caregivers. However, children communicate their feelings and needs to their caregivers as soon as they are born through signals and gestures. As they mature, children start to use language and gestures to express their feelings. Early on, young children express feelings but do not have an understanding of what they are feeling. Therefore, it is important for caregivers to name feelings that children express as well as providing culturally appropriate models of how to react when feeling certain emotions. These strategies provide children with the support needed to identify their own feelings and an idea of how they can express themselves while learning to better manage their growing range of emotions. The ability to express and manage emotions impacts children’s emotional development and also influences how children form social relationships with others.

Role of the Co-regulator

The role of the co-regulator in the lives of infants and toddlers is to help children build emotional expression and competence. As with many of the developmental milestones in young children’s lives, emotional expression and competence are culturally defined.2 The ability of children to express emotion in a positive manner is closely tied to their cultural expectations, their emotional regulation, and the role of their co-regulator. At first, the role of the co-regulator is to recognize children’s signals and cues when they are expressing their feelings and to respond in a manner that thoughtfully meets their needs. The role of the co-regulator later includes modeling positive emotional expression and providing words to label feelings. These strategies help children build the ability to recognize what they are feeling and begin to manage their emotions in a healthy manner.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to express a wide range of feelings through verbal and nonverbal communication, and begin to develop emotional expression with the assistance of their caregiver(s).

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses facial expressions and sounds to get needs met, e.g., cries, smiles, gazes, coos
  • Expresses emotions through sounds and gestures, e.g., squeals, laughs, claps
  • Demonstrates discomfort, stress, or unhappiness through body language and sounds, e.g., arches back, moves head, cries

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond and comfort the child in order to meet needs; act as a co-regulator for the child, e.g., feed the child when hungry, rock the child when tired
  • Describe the emotion the child is expressing, e.g., “I can see you are so excited about reaching that toy!”
  • Model facial expressions to match emotions, e.g., widen eyes and open mouth to express surprise

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to express some emotions with intention, and with the help of their caregiver(s) children can increase their range of emotional expression.

Indicators for children include:

  • Expresses wants with intentionality, e.g., pushes an unwanted object out of the way, reaches for a familiar adult when wanting to be carried
  • Expresses fear by crying or turning toward caregiver(s) for comfort
  • Shows anger and frustration, e.g., cries when a toy is taken away
  • Recognizes and expresses emotion toward a familiar person, e.g., shows emotion by hugging a sibling

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond to child’s display of fear or distress; reassure and comfort the child
  • Model emotional expression for the child by making facial expressions and using words to name the emotion
  • Reciprocate actions and gestures the child initiates, e.g., wave hello, blow kisses, give hugs

16 months to 24 months

Children continue to experience a wide range of emotions (e.g., affection, frustration, fear, anger, sadness). At this point in development, children will express and act on impulses, but begin to learn skills from their caregiver(s) on how to control their emotional expression.

Indicators for children include:

  • Demonstrates anger and frustration through a wide range of physical, vocal, and facial expressions, e.g., temper tantrums
  • Expresses pride, e.g., smiles, claps, or says, “I did it” after completing a task
  • Attempts to use a word to describe feelings to a familiar adult
  • Expresses wonder and delight while exploring the environment and engaging others

Strategies for interaction

  • Use words to describe the emotion; this helps the child associate the feeling with the name
  • Pay close attention to the cues the child is expressing
  • Model appropriate ways to express different feelings
  • Acknowledge and validate the emotions the child is feeling, e.g., “I can see you are so excited by the way you are jumping up and down.”

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to convey and express emotions through the use of nonverbal and verbal communication. Children also begin to apply learned strategies from their caregiver(s) to better regulate these emotions.

Indicators for children include:

  • Attempts to use words to describe feelings and names emotions
  • Acts out different emotions while engaged in pretend play, e.g., cries when pretending to be sad, jumps up and down for excitement
  • Begins to express complex emotions such as pride, embarrassment, shame, and guilt
  • Engages in play to express emotion, e.g., draws a picture for a caregiver because he or she misses them, hides a “monster” in a box due to a fear

Strategies for interaction

  • Discuss feelings with the child; reassure him or her that it is okay to feel different emotions
  • Recognize that the child may need some assistance in expressing feelings
  • Allow other channels in which children can express their emotions, e.g., art, dance, imaginary play
  • Respect cultural differences when it comes to expressing emotions; never discount what the child is sharing and expressing
  • Ensure to continue reading the child’s cues even as the child begins to use words to describe feelings

Real World Story

Reena is 30 months old and is of Indian descent. She attends childcare during the week while both her parents work full time. She is a happy little girl, who enjoys reading books and singing songs. Her childcare provider is Lisa. Lisa has set up a few different activities for children to choose from. There is a table with play dough, a pretend kitchen with pretend fruits and vegetables, and a water table with different floating objects in it. Reena gets up from sitting on the floor where she had been working on a puzzle and makes her way to the table with the play dough. She sits down and begins to roll a piece of play dough against the table.

Across from Reena is Michael, who is 35 months old. Michael grabs Reena’s play dough and pulls a big chunk off for himself. Reena remains quiet and looks down without saying anything. As Lisa walks around the room she notices Reena is not playing with the play dough. She kneels down next to Reena and asks her if everything is all right. Reena looks up, and a tear rolls down her cheek. She looks at Michael and points toward the play dough in front of him. Lisa asks, “Did he take some of your play dough?” Reena nods. Lisa looks at Reena and says, “I can see why you are feeling sad, it does not feel good when friends take things from us.” Reena nods in agreement.

IN THIS EXAMPLE, we see a common interaction among children. While Michael knows that it is not okay to take things away from peers, he does not have the impulse control to stop his behavior. Reena is sad and angry but reacts to Michael’s action in a passive way. This passive manner of expressing emotions is more common in Eastern cultures.3 Children from Western cultures often express negative emotions in an active manner that includes facial expressions and gestures.4 Reena has learned from observing family that the expression of negative emotions is not highly encouraged. Lisa plays the role of the co-regulator in helping Reena identify what she is feeling and validates that it is okay for her to feel that way. This helps Reena name her emotions and builds understanding of why she feels the emotions she does.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:


  1. Saarni, Carolyn & Harris, Paul L. (1989). Children’s Understanding of Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Saarni, Carolyn & Harris, Paul L. (1989). Children’s Understanding of Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Eckman, P. (1993). Facial Expression and Emotion. American Psychologist, 48, 384–392.
  4. Eckman, P. (1993). Facial Expression and Emotion. American Psychologist, 48, 384–392.
Reviewed: 2012