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Talking to Little Kids About Big Emotions

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Playing is the work of children. Dramatic play allows children to process emotions and situations they don’t exactly understand yet. As guides for our kids, it’s important for us to give them the tools they need to help them understand these emotions.

When I was a preschool teacher, allowing time for unstructured play was a priority in my classroom. As a mom I’ve kept that priority, though these days it’s more challenging as play time competes with iPads and Netflix at home. We manage a good balance, though, and that play time is a great opportunity for me to talk about emotions with my five year-old.

Dramatic play at home allows parents insight to what a young child may have on her mind. You can gain that insight by either spying on your child (really) or by joining in, though sometimes a child may censor herself when she knows you are paying attention.


My five year-old has a huge imagination and can get lost for hours playing with her dollhouse. From watching her play I’ve learned that she loves the time we’ve spent at the beach in the summer, she loves her family, and she often feels excluded by older children. Knowing how imaginative and expressive she is, I wondered how she might play with toys based on the characters from the film Inside Out, each of which are named for an emotion.

While running errands the other day, we stopped by our local Toys “R” Us to check out the Inside Out toys. We saw them as soon as we walked in and I let both my five year-old and my nine year-old choose a character to bring home.



After careful examination, they decided to bring home talking versions of Joy and Sadness. I was a little relieved that those were the two emotions they identified the most with, but it made me wonder: do they know it’s OK to feel Anger, Fear, and Disgust, too?

When children are learning language skills we often give them words to help: Mama, Food, Potty. Just because they master speaking doesn’t mean we should stop giving them words to help them. Knowing which emotion is affecting us most in the heat of the moment is a learned skill. Convincing your child which emotion is in charge when she is in the heat of the moment can feel impossible, for both you and your child. And that frustration can easily boil over and turn your child into someone you don’t recognize. What if that frustration is caused by your child thinking the emotion he or she is experiencing is wrong?

I find the best way to discover what a child knows is to ask him or her. When talking about emotions, we can gain more from the conversation when passions have subsided than we can in the middle of a fit. I chose a time when my five year-old was quietly playing by herself and asked her: “Why is Sadness sad?”


She told me Sadness was sad because no one has time to play with her. And then my heart broke and I died.

I knew she was often frustrated by her tween sister refusing to play with her and by me having other responsibilities than being her primary playmate, but until then I didn’t know how deeply she felt that.

So then I asked her: “Why is Joy so happy?”


She told me Joy was happy because she was done with all her work and now she has time to play with her friends. My sweet girl…

My five year-old is the embodiment of Joy. Always jumping through the house and trying to cheer up people she perceives as sad. But she also is very aware of what is “supposed” to happen; of what is “right” and what is “wrong”. I really wanted to know if she knew it was OK to feel Anger or Fear or even Disgust.


I asked her about Anger. She wasn’t sure if it was OK. She said she feels embarrassed when she’s angry. Her big sister chimed in to offer that it was fine to feel Anger, as long as you didn’t “get carried away with it.” I thought that was pretty good advice from a nine year-old.

Often times young children will view something as wrong or right just because they’ve never been told otherwise. We can normalize these big emotions in little kids by naming them, and by giving our kids permission to feel what they are feeling. Removing the mystery or shame from a feeling can be all that is needed to give a child the tools to grow emotionally.

Are you planning to see Inside Out? How could you use the toys from the movie to talk about emotions with your kids?

P.S. When you shop at Toys “R” Us, don’t forget to use the Rewards “R” Us program — it gives you points for purchases which means you can earn free toys!



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2 thoughts on “Talking to Little Kids About Big Emotions

  1. How absolutely SWEET is she?! My daughter was very sad today because her brothers wouldn’t play with her and mommy was busy making dinner. It’s tough being five sometimes! we loved Inside Out and have been talking about the emotions ever since! #client

    1. It is tough being a mommy! Those kiddos warm my heart and break it all the time. I love having those conversations with them, though. It’s so cool to get to know them better and get that insight.

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