Three Key Elements of Emotions – What Emotions Really Mean

Three Key Elements of Emotions – What Emotions Really Mean

3 August 2022 • Words by Kate Purnell 4 mins

When engaging with children, it can be easy to forget that they experience a wide range of emotions just as adults do, and sometimes even more so due to the fact that they aren’t as experienced and equipped to deal with varying situations that can cause a reaction. Emotions are physiological responses to external events. Essentially, our emotions are our body’s way of communicating to us about a situation or event. And while we all have emotional responses, experience and education help us to manage the behaviors that stem from emotions. 

While there are various theories regarding emotions and which emotions are considered basic, there are three key elements that make up all of our emotions. Without understanding the purpose of these elements, we cannot begin to help our young people learn about their own emotions and how to manage their responses in a healthy and communicative way. 

Three Key Elements of Emotions


While everyone experiences emotions such as anger or sadness regardless of culture or background, we don’t all feel them in the same way. The feeling element of emotions refers to what we feel in our body and the psychological response. We teach children to name their feelings, such as “I feel angry” or “I feel excited.” When asked, kids may say these feelings feel the same in their bodies, such as an increase in energy and heart rate, but the emotion behind the feeling is totally different.


Once we are able to name the feeling and the response that our body is having, we can move into a more cognitive space of interpreting our emotions. As adults, we can help kids articulate the thinking element by giving them some simple sentence starters. For example, as a follow-up to “I feel angry,” you can note out loud what their body looks like (fists clenched, brows furrowed) and ask them to tell you what caused them to become angry. Don’t assume that you know what is causing the feeling.


The doing element of emotions is the easiest to observe and the hardest to teach. Our emotions, feelings, and thought patterns are contextual and, for kids in school, very often social. Behaviors are direct reflections of our emotional responses. As adults, we know that even if someone makes us angry, it is not appropriate to lash out physically or verbally, and these are things we must teach children as well as they often go with their first instincts in terms of behavioral responses to their emotions. These responses can include crying and screaming, shutting down, hitting, or even getting over excited with joy in the form of yelling. Children need to be taught the rules about what kind of responses are healthy, and where and with whom it’s appropriate to have certain responses. That is a lot for kids to learn and apply! 

Now that we know more about what emotions are, we can begin to develop strategies for helping our children understand what their emotions and their behavioral responses actually mean. 

Strategies to Help Kids Understand and Manage Emotions

Label emotions

Emotions can be confusing for children, especially when they don’t understand what they are feeling or why they are having a physical response to a situation or circumstance. Children begin to notice different emotions from birth, and we can start by labeling emotions in accordance with facial expressions and body language. We often naturally do this by adjusting our voices or overexaggerating our facial and body expressions with young children, known as infant-directed speech. Ensure that you also label your own emotions and model healthy responses to them for your child, so they can learn by example. 


Another important skill to teach is self-soothing. If we always try to prevent children’s emotions from arising or to “fix” them when they do, children won’t learn that they are capable of finding an object or activity that will soothe them. A prime example of this teaching is when a parent teaches their baby to sleep through the night by letting them fuss a bit and see if they find their stuffed toy or blanket or a comfortable position on their own, without the help of an adult. For older children, Moshi bedtime stories are a great resource for helping kids fall asleep on their own.  

Express emotions

When it comes to expressing emotions, It’s important to allow your child to express their emotions no matter how minor they may seem. However, what behavior is allowed as a result of that emotion is something else entirely. For example, a common phrase I use with my students when they engage in explosive verbal or physical responses is, “You can feel angry, that’s okay, but it’s not okay to hit, yell, throw things at someone . . .” etc. It’s important to validate their emotions and be empathetic towards them. Show a sense of understanding about how they are feeling and why. 

Develope Language

One of the most important things to do for a child who is experiencing intense emotions is to give them language to discuss and express those emotions. This can be done with social stories explaining feelings and helping to ignite empathy, or simply showing a variety of facial expressions with a describing word attached so they can begin to have a clear understanding of facial expressions and body language. Help them to name and explain their emotions and use positive reinforcement, such as “I’m proud of you for not hitting back” or “I’m so happy you used your words.” 

Provide strategies

Providing strategies and modeling said strategies can be hugely beneficial and can contribute to children developing their own methods of self-soothing without your support in the future. If they are getting upset, ask if they would like time alone. This can help them process their emotions, especially when they start to say “I don’t know” when you ask them how they feel. You can also suggest deep breathing, offer a distraction such as a game, give physical comfort, or help them express themselves through storytelling and drawing to process and communicate their feelings. 

Have realistic expectations

Lastly, have realistic expectations. A two-year-old isn’t going to be able to use eloquent language to express what they are feeling. Different personality types may need different things, too. Like adults, some children may need quiet time alone, while others would benefit from physical activity to help sort out their feelings. Building a trusting relationship and fueling a positive and validating emotional environment will help you educate yourself about what your particular child needs. Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment. You are setting children up for a lifetime of healthy emotional habits and relationships. 

Kate Purnell

Kate Purnell is originally from Oakland, Ca. She currently lives in the UK teaching Secondary English and Drama. An educator, writer and all-around multi-hyphenate, you can find her trying to get her students to fall in love with the power of the human story, writing her own or attempting to not be distracted during her yoga class. You can find her on Twitter and IG @KatePurnell