Teaching how to express emotions Expression: If a child pouts, don't simply try to stop the behavior. Help your young one understand the feelings behind it.


When my 4 1/2 -year-old gets upset, sad, mad or frustrated, she pouts. Is this just a phase she is going through, or is she destined for a lifetime of being a sourpuss? What should we do?

Julie Bonner,

Buffalo, N.Y.

Most of the parents who called Child Life deal with their children's pouting episodes either by ignoring them or sending the offenders to their rooms until they get into a better mood.

This usually works and is certainly one approach for handling the situation. But if we can step back and think about why the child is pouting, we can see this as an opportunity to teach the child how to deal appropriately with unpleasant emotions.

Child development experts tell us this is not necessarily easy, and it won't work overnight. But the payoff is that children learn other safe and acceptable ways to express what's bothering them. That way, children can vent their emotions, feel understood and move on. This is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Children do have strong emotions, and they are just as entitled to have them as anyone else. When it comes to expressing those emotions, children just do what comes naturally. Depending on individual personalities and situations, a child usually expresses sadness, frustration or anger either by throwing a fit or by wearing a dour expression.

Children as young as 4 1/2 often have not yet acquired a vocabulary for expressing feelings, says psychologist Suzanne Bronheim. When you see the pout, try to guess what your daughter may be feeling and talk about it with her.

"You could say something like, 'I guess that was pretty disappointing,' or 'I can see that you are very upset.' That begins to give them the words they can use," says Bronheim, a pediatrics professor at Georgetown University Child Development Center in Washington.

Experts call this technique reflective listening, and it can help children feel understood and comforted. To learn more about this technique, Bronheim recommends the book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (Avon) by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

You can also help the child understand what she's doing when she pouts and why, says Sara Hines Martin, an author and family counselor in Acworth, Ga.

"Tell her when we are upset or unhappy and we don't know what to do about it, sometimes we poke out our lip and that's called pouting," Martin says. "That begins to teach her about the emotions."

The next step is to help the child express unpleasant feelings. Releasing them helps the child to move on.

"There are lots of ways to do this," Martin says. "Let her pound a pillow, throw marshmallows or draw a picture that shows how she feels."

When we just tell a child not to pout and send her to her room, it does not teach the child any other way to vent the emotions, Martin says.

"Children might learn to control their facial muscles for our benefit, but then we don't know what's going on inside the child," Martin says. "We don't know if she's taking care of her inner emotions."

Both Martin and Bronheim say it may be helpful for the parents to examine why the child's pouting bothers them so much.

"Mom doesn't like it when her daughter doesn't like things and then expresses it," Bronheim says. "But nobody is happy all the time. If a child knows that it's important to you that she always be happy, that can be a pretty potent tool for her to get what she wants."

Martin says all family members need to be able to experience a wide variety of emotions and express them safely without being made to feel ashamed for having those emotions.

"If you only focus on correcting the behavior, you're not looking at what's going on within the child," Martin says. "Step back and ask yourself what must be going on within that child. Realize that it has nothing to do with you."

Both Martin and Bronheim warn that this approach is not a quick fix. It may take months or even years before a child this young understands her full range of feelings and can deal with them on her own.

"But if you can teach her these techniques now, it can affect whether or not she's a sourpuss for the rest of her life," Martin says.

Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to bevmillol.com.

rTC Living with grandparents: "I'm a grandparent raising my grandchildren, and I need some suggestions and resources," says a grandmother in Arlington Heights, Ill. "Educators are always wanting to know the details on the children's background. These kids are hurt quite often by everyone with comments like, 'Why aren't you living with your mom? Doesn't your mom want you?' I would appreciate any ideas."

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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