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Children demonstrate the emerging ability to identify and manage the expression of emotion in accordance with social and cultural contexts.

Emotional regulation refers to children’s abilities to identify and manage their feelings. As in every aspect of development, emotional regulation begins with caregiver relationships. Attentive caregivers who consistently meet the needs of children set the foundation for healthy emotional regulation. In early infancy, children need their caregivers to soothe them when distressed. If these needs are met consistently and promptly, children develop a sense of trust and security with those around them. Children use these positive experiences to build upon their own self-soothing strategies to remain organized, and they begin to learn to manage their emotions.

Children feel a range of emotions and will express and react to them without thinking. This range includes everything from joy to frustration to fear. In the first three years of life, children are working on building the foundation for this skill. Children use their caregivers, play, and private speech to help them manage their emotions. As the co-regulators, caregivers model for and support children in learning to pause between what they are feeling and taking action. Children learn to take time to think, plan, and eventually come up with an appropriate response in situations in which they experience intense emotions.1 If these interactions go well, children build the capacity to regulate their emotions in appropriate ways, defined by their cultural and social contexts. Emotional regulation is extremely important as it influences how children interact with adults and each other, build empathy, master new skills, and work through frustrations and conflicts.

Range of Tantrums

Tantrums refer to extreme anger or frustration and are characterized by crying and screaming. Tantrums are common and developmentally appropriate behavior in young children. Since children have neither the language nor the capacity to control their emotions and behavior, stress and frustration overcome their little bodies. These powerful feelings are felt by their whole being, and they will often thrash their arms and legs and throw themselves on the floor. Children are mastering new skills, and when they aren’t able to accomplish a task, they tantrum to express frustration. Tantrums are common during the second year of life, when children are beginning to verbally communicate. As communications skills improve, tantrums decrease. Young children want a sense of independence and control; therefore, caregivers can provide children with limits and choices to help them feel in control.

Birth to 9 months

Children are developing the ability to manage their own emotional experiences through co-regulation, as they communicate needs to caregivers.

Indicators for children include:

  • Signals needs by sounds and movement
  • Able to use cues to signal overstimulation, e.g., turns head, gaze aversion
  • Begins to use self-soothing strategies, e.g., sucks on hands, grasps an object in order to calm self
  • Vocalizes and uses facial cues to get caregiver’s attention, e.g., cries, gazes, initiates eye contact

Strategies for interaction

  • Remain emotionally available for the child; respond thoughtfully to their needs, e.g., hold, rock, and cuddle the child when distressed
  • Respond to the child’s signals in order to meet their needs
  • Pay attention to subtle cues from the child in order to prevent overstimulation and discomfort
  • Recognize and control own emotions in challenging instances, e.g., a crying child who will not calm down

7 months to 18 months

As children continue to depend on and learn from caregivers, they begin to use more purposeful and complex skills in managing their emotions.

Indicators for children include:

  • Communicates needs to an adult, e.g., points, shakes head
  • Able to self-soothe more effectively, e.g., sucks thumb, holds on to stuffed toy
  • Uses social referencing in uncertain situations, e.g., looks at a caregiver’s face for reassurance in the presence of a new person
  • Prefers physical proximity to familiar adults in unknown situations, e.g., follows caregiver when he or she leaves the room
  • Seeks out caregiver through physical actions, e.g., reaches for the caregiver’s hand or moves closer to them when frightened
  • Uses comfort objects, e.g., a stuffed animal or blanket, to help calm down

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond thoughtfully to child’s needs, e.g., reassure child who is feeling uncertain through facial expressions, voice, and touch
  • Model appropriate expression of emotions for the child
  • Be aware and responsive to the child’s needs; read the child’s facial cues and body language to help gauge what he/she may be feeling
  • Match the child’s emotional state through facial expressions and body language, e.g., widen eyes and move up and down when the child starts to laugh and clap
  • Provide child with comfort objects when upset, or during difficult times such as transitions, e.g., a blanket, favorite stuffed animal
  • Ensure to always say good-bye when separating from the child

16 months to 24 months

Children begin to recognize a specific range of emotions and manage their emotions through both the use of advanced soothing strategies and the use of their caregiver.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses caregiver’s facial cues and body language to assist in novel and uncertain situations, e.g., sees a dog for the first time and uses the adult’s smile as a cue to cautiously pat the dog
  • Uses play to sort out feelings and gain control over them, e.g., projects feeling onto an object, grasps a ball and hugs it tightly to chest when excited
  • Uses verbal and nonverbal communication to signal the need for their caregiver, e.g., calls by name, crawls into a familiar adult’s lap
  • Names some emotions, e.g., “me sad”
  • Begins to use “private speech” in order to assist in regulating their emotions, e.g., utters “bear, where is bear” to self

Strategies for interaction

  • Remain physically and emotionally available for the child; respond thoughtfully to their requests
  • Describe feelings when interacting with children
  • Use books that illustrate different emotions that children may experience
  • Provide sensitive guidance and reassurance to the child when he or she is having difficulty managing and expressing emotions

21 months to 36 months

While children still need support from a caregiver, they are able to better manage their emotions and can sustain regulation as they begin to discriminate which skills and strategies to apply in different situations.

Indicators for children include:

  • Communicates wants and needs verbally, e.g. “pick me up”
  • Engages in pretend play to manage uncertainty and fear, e.g., plays doctor and gives someone a “shot”
  • Seeks caregiver support when feeling overwhelmed by emotion; may reject support as well
  • Expresses emotions through the use of play
  • Holds on to a special object during certain times of the day, e.g., blanket, picture, book, stuffed toy

Strategies for interaction

  • Remain physically and emotionally available for the child, e.g., share in the child’s expressions and feelings of joy and excitement through touch and sound
  • Continue to use books that illustrate different emotions that children may experience
  • Validate the child’s feelings and let them know it is okay to feel the emotions they are experiencing
  • Provide balance in both supporting the child and allowing the child space to work through situations independently; use the child’s cues to decide what he or she needs
  • Prompt and provide words for what the child may be feeling for more complex emotions


  1. Perry, Bruce. (2012). Self-Regulation: The Second Core Strength. Early Childhood Today.
Reviewed: 2012