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Between the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread financial struggles caused by quarantine and lockdown, drawn-out conflicts over the presidential election, and ongoing awareness of the impact of racism, this year has been a tumultuous one. Add in the swirling emotions that often come with the holidays and it’s no wonder that children and families may be feeling more than a little overwhelmed.

While they may not be aware of what exactly is going on outside of their daily life,  children under the age of five are highly attuned to the feelings of others, particularly adults. Without knowing the details, many can sense that something is not quite right. 

On top of all this, the pandemic alone has resulted in significant shifts in children’s routines as childcare settings open and then close again and parents/caregivers struggle to juggle the demands of work and family.  All of this contributes to “big feelings” that in young children may manifest in puzzling or trying ways. For adults, strong emotions are difficult to explain and cope with; for pre-verbal children, strong emotions can feel impossible.

The first step in helping young children cope with big feelings is to provide them with the language they need to talk about what they are experiencing. Identifying emotions is something you can incorporate into your daily routine. Ways to do this include:

  • Pointing out the facial expressions of characters in picture books and naming their emotions. For example, “Look at the Cat in the Hat’s face! He looks sad. Maybe he is disappointed.”
  • Labeling the facial expressions that children make. For example, “I can see from your scrunched up eyebrows that you are mad.”
  • Make faces that are angry, happy, sad, scared, and surprised. Ask children to do the same. For example, “This is my happy face! Can you show me your happy face?”

If you have a longer period of time, the following activity is a more in-depth way to foster children’s understanding of their emotions. 

ACTIVITY: Feelings Poster

Materials: Paper (construction paper or blank white paper), phone camera, markers, crayons, or colored pencils, scraps of paper, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, magazines or catalogues, anything else that can be collaged.

  1. Ask your child to make faces expressing different emotions. Ask very young children (ages 2-3) to make happy, sad, and angry faces. Ask older children (3+) to also make surprised, scared, frustrated, and disappointed faces. Take pictures of each of these faces on your phone. 
  2. Show your child each picture. Ask younger children to collage what they see. Ask older children to draw what they see. As they create their self-portraits, point out the way their eyes, eyebrows, and mouths vary with each emotion.
  3. When they are done, ask your child to think of a time when they feel each emotion. For example, they might say, “I feel happy when I eat ice cream.” Or, “I feel sad when I can’t go to the playground.” 
  4. Write down their answers under each drawing.
  5. Continue until you run out of photos or emotions.

It is never too early to help children develop coping skills that can lead to lifelong resilience. This activity is a great way for you and your child to spend time together, while also developing a shared language about your child’s emotions. When your child can communicate how they are feeling and what they need, everybody wins. 


Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.