Expression of Feelings in Early Childhood

All children begin their journey with no expectations and have a sense of wonder about their world (Doe & Walsh, 1998). As they travel through their life, events may occur in the child’s life that could contribute to the way they are feeling. If a child does not deal with events or situations, the child may encounter feelings of anger, abandonment, sadness, loneliness, resentment, blame, anxiety and separation, and feelings of not being heard and loved.

Helping the child to express their feelings and to understand why they are feeling the way they are will enhance their emotional, mental and physical well-being – bringing about a positive outcome.

Stages of Development

As children travel through the journey of life they are faced with many different developmental challenges. Early in life, babies learn to pay attention and be part of a relationship. As they grow they learn to use their imagination and think logically.

Greenspan and Salmon (1995) developed a road map outlining the emotional milestones children need to pass through on their way to a healthier, mature personality. They propose that at each stage children learn basic abilities that carry them forward into the next stage and as children pass through these emotional milestones their ability to think, reason and feel become more advanced.

Stage 1: The Ability to Look, Listen and Be Calm: One of the first abilities that all babies need is to be calm so that it is possible for them to be interested in and attentive to people, things, sounds, smells and movements. If on the other hand the baby is sensitive to noises and unexpected hugs they may become overwhelmed and find it more difficult to be calm.

Stage 2: The Ability to Feel Close to Others: At this stage children have the ability to feel close to others. The child’s inner security gives them the capacity to be warm and trusting. On the other hand children who are aloof, withdrawn or expect to be humiliated can become isolated and unable to relate to people in a warm trusting way.

Stage 3: Two-Way Communication: At the communication stage children learn to read body language and facial expressions. They also learn to form mental pictures or images so they may form ideas about their wants, needs and emotions. They are able to feel whether they are safe and secure with an adult or whether the adult is dangerous, critical or rejecting. Children who have difficulties understanding facial expressions or changes in vocal tone find it difficult to make these quick and intuitive judgements.

Stage 4: Emotional Ideas: At this stage children can start to exercise their minds, bodies and emotions as one. They learn how to form mental pictures or images about their wants, needs and emotions and begin to use an idea, expressed in words, to communicate something about what they want, feel, or what they are going to do. Having this ability opens a whole new world of opportunities and growth. Children who use emotional ideas in make-believe play e.g. dolls hugging or fighting, or making up a story about how another child might be feeling, are making creative leaps based on this ability to use their imagination.

If children are sensitive to visual images and to changes in vocal tone, a make-believe story e.g. animal faces and strange voices, may be frightening and overwhelming. These children are very nervous about entering into the world of fantasy and imagination. According to Greenspan and Salmon (1995), children who have problems controlling their aggression often have difficulty acknowledging their own feelings and expressing the idea of those emotions through words. They have found that children who have an action approach to life may have a certain degree of difficulty identifying their intentions and feelings; therefore use aggression as a way to cope with challenging situations.

Stage 5: Emotional Thinking: When children reach the emotional thinking stage they go past labelling a feeling, they become able to think with these images starting to connect an idea and a feeling and recognising that one is causing the other e.g. they might say “I’m angry today because you didn’t come and play with me”.

At this stage children start to make the distinction between fantasy and reality. They understand more about what is coming from inside them and what influences are external to them. Children who find it difficult to process the information they are hearing find it much easier to live in their own private world. Greenspan and Salmon (1995) have found these children are usually very dramatic but when asked a difficult question they tend to ignore the question and retreat further into their own fantasies, compromising their emotional thinking.

Stage 6: The Age of Fantasy and Unlimited Power: This is the stage when children from the age of four and a half to seven years develop their abilities to relate, communicate, imagine and think. They have a curiosity about life and a deep sense of wonder about the world. It is the stage where they may start to express themselves fearlessly.

Greenspan and Salmon (1995) have named this stage as the “world is my oyster”. There is a great sense of magic and little boys may imagine themselves to be a Ninja Turtle or a power ranger, while little girls may imagine themselves to be Cinderella or Barbie. The relationship they have with their parents and others around them helps to develop greater emotional flexibility allowing them to work out complicated feelings without volatile outbursts.

This is also the time where children may become fearful. For example, they may worry about ghosts or have bad feelings concerning being kidnapped. In a child who is oversensitive to sound or touch, the fearful side of life can be overwhelming.

If all goes well at this stage children start to understand what reality is, while at the same time still having a degree of fantasy and unlimited power. They have a better understanding of more complicated relationships and become more emotionally stable e.g. they develop a capacity for more “adult” emotions such as guilt or empathy (although empathy is easily lost when they are feeling jealous or competitive). Having all these abilities helps children move out into the wider world (Greenspan & Salmon, 1995).

The Different Personality Traits in Children

According to Greenspan and Salmon (1995) a child’s personality is not simply a product of nature and nurture but a product of the continuous interplay between nature and nurture. Greenspan and Salmon (1995) state that “this interplay happens between children and their parents”. For example, parents nurture their child with warmth and love which interacts with the child’s nature, a new pattern of interaction is created. This new form of relationship helps children to develop the warmth and confidence they need.

A child’s temperament (nature) is considered to be what they are born with. If a child has a difficult temperament they can be faced with a great deal of challenges throughout their life. These children tend to sleep less and are more demanding and impulsive. Although the child’s temperament can stay with them to some extent and shape their personality it can be modified a great deal by the way they are loved (nurture). For example, if children are brought up in a nurturing environment and able to express their feelings whether sad or happy, they tend to have a smoother road than children who are brought up in a stressful or neglectful environment (Cooper, 2006).

Five Basic Personality Patterns

Greenspan and Salmon (1995) describe five basic personality patterns and the emotional characteristics that accompany these patterns.

The Highly Sensitive Child: In the first few months of life, babies generally learn how to calm and regulate themselves. They usually remain interested and alert, but the highly sensitive baby finds it hard to master these emotional skills. They find it hard to relate to people, sights, sounds, smells and even the thought of touching dad’s rough beard can overwhelm them. As they get older they tend to be demanding and clingy.

They are upset easily by new situations and may be frightened of children who are more assertive than them, resulting in increased aggressiveness (through fear) and they may choose not to play with other children. When sensitive children approach school, their fears appear to grow causing them to be more vulnerable to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. They may also go through fantasies of feeling that they are the “best” which sometimes results in them being moody, self-centred and demanding.

The Self-Absorbed Child: The self-absorbed baby usually seems very content to lie in their cots playing with their fingers or sleeping. After crawling around the baby who withdraws seems to be very content just to sit there and wait for a toy. When they become toddlers instead of wanting to explore like other children they may just want to sit quietly.

Withdrawn children are usually interested in make-believe and tend to prefer their imagery world to reality, therefore being able to communicate with them about real situations such as how their day was at school, could be a real challenge. Sometimes they prefer to stay close to mum and dad and will often have only one or two friends. When challenged by anything they may tend to give up easily.

The Defiant Child: Defiant children tend to be stubborn, negative and controlling. They react in negative ways to most situations usually getting stuck in the “no” stage. Their defiant behaviour can develop into negative patterns. These patterns can appear at any age and extend into all areas of their life. During the ages of two and four, emotional ideas and emotional thinking tends to become rigid and inflexible.

The defiant child likes to be very controlling insisting that they are right about everything such as bedtime, the clothes they are wearing and the food they eat. As they start school they appear to be more concrete and focused on planning small pieces of their own world instead of accepting all of it. As they are very bright and hardworking, they appear to have perfectionist qualities putting high expectations on themselves. They tend to cope with their tendency to be overwhelmed by restricting any emotional input and avoiding challenging situations.

The Inattentive Child: Children with attentive problems may not respond well to anything that appears complex. It can be very difficult to have a conversation with them because they change from one topic to another. Their attention span is limited causing them to follow very limited instruction and their inability to maintain concentration makes them poor listeners. Having this difficulty usually results in the child finding it difficult to express themselves, for example describing their day or answering a question that the teacher asks.

Inattentive children appear to be paying attention in the classroom but while their bodies remain stationary their minds wander aimlessly through a universe of ideas and images. Frequently, their academic performance will reflect their lack of connection with classroom activities and their lack of assertiveness makes it easy for them to be overlooked and lost in the crowd (Moore, 2000).

The inattentive child tends to be disconnected from thought, expression, creativity, books, words, people and their feelings. These children are usually branded with having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Children who have this disorder can have a very low self-image and self-esteem due to experiencing repeated failures, misunderstandings and mislabels e.g. being called dumb, stupid, spacey and lazy.

Inattentive children are predominately classed as “daydreamers”; they are distracted easily, make careless mistakes and are usually overwhelmed by stimulating situations. This is unlike children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) who daydream occasionally, fidget, talk excessively, have problems staying seated and are usually energised by stimulating situations.

Inattentive children require a great degree of self-acceptance and patience with themselves because of the frustration they may encounter. In helping these children the focus needs to be on their strengths rather than always correcting their weaknesses.

The Active/Aggressive Child: These children are constantly running instead of walking and acting instead of talking. They tend to jump into new experiences and worry about the consequences of their actions later. At school they are nearly always the class trouble maker, throwing books around and enticing other children to yell and scream. They can be easily frustrated and angered and might resort to hitting, punching and pinching to get what they want.

When the active/aggressive child gets frustrated they are not quiet about it, causing them to act out physically trying to change what they don’t like. Anger and aggressive feelings are sometimes unavoidable but as long as these feelings are balanced with feelings of closeness and empathy active/aggressive children can be motivated into doing more than they thought would be possible. Children need to acknowledge all their own feelings (good or bad) so that these emotions can become part of their gradual development towards their sense of self.

Being able to find their sense of self helps them to become integrated people capable of being able to nurture, be assertive and to love. Aggression in children can be very taxing and can vary considerably, therefore understanding the underlying physical and emotional reasons behind the aggression can help them grow and develop emotionally. For example, if a child comes from an impulsive, aggressive family life and is neglected emotionally or is physically abused, there is an increased chance that the child will become violent. Some of the characteristics that these children seem to share are:

  • The tendency not to care for others because no one has cared for them,
  • The inability to communicate their desires, intentions and feelings, and
  • The inability to piece together internal dialogues.

When these children feel that their sense of frustration is as big as a mountain, instead of expressing their feelings they tend to act out with disruptive, aggressive behaviour. According to Greenspan and Salmon (1995) they tend to speak only of actions rather than feelings and when challenged they respond with impulsive actions (hitting) rather than recognising their feelings and making choices.


  1. Cooper, J. (2006). Getting on with others. Lane Cove: Finch Publishing Pty Ltd.
  2. Greenspan, S.I., & Salmon, J. (1995). The challenging child: Understanding, raising and enjoying the five “difficult” types of children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
  3. Moore, D. (2000). Inattentive add: Working with the wandering mind. Retrieved October, 2007 from: