What is Emotional Expression in Childhood?
Emotional expression in childhood is the ability to show feelings such as happiness, surprise, anger, frustration, and admiration through facial expressions and body language.
Emotional expression is an important part of social-emotional development. In social interaction and in forming peer relationships, it is very helpful to be able to use and read emotional expressions. This ability is often included in the umbrella of nonverbal communication.
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Symptoms of Emotional Expression Problems in Childhood
- Tough ‘read’: your child may be hard to understand. People may say they aren’t sure how your child feels or how to ‘read’ their expressions to know what they want or need
- Flat expression: your child’s face may seem stoic, blank, or plain even when there are situations where strong emotions would be expected. For example, your child may have a blank expression when winning an award or getting the news that the family is getting a new puppy. This is often called ‘flat affect’
- No ‘BFF’: your child may have trouble expressing feelings with friends and developing intimate relationships such as best friends
- Unaware of self: your child may have trouble describing their personality, likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses
- Slow to respond: your child may take more time to process incidents that happen. They may be quiet or reserved after something significant happens. Sometimes they will open up after time to think about their experience
- Indecisive: your child may be slow to make decisions about activities they want to try or events to attend. They may sit quietly for a long time and say, “I don’t know” when asked what they would enjoy doing
- Poor eye contact: your child may be uncomfortable or unaware of how to use eye contact to communicate when talking or listening. It can be hard to follow social interactions without eye contact
Causes of Emotional Expression Issues in Childhood
Mental health concerns like excessive worry can lead to children having a very hard time showing feelings to others. Sometimes anxious children will seem very stiff and serious in their communication style. In some cases, the child’s hands may shake or their lips may quiver with emotion, even if they are unable to describe such feelings effectively. You may notice anxiety in body posture or a lack of eye contact
In child development, flat or limited facial expressions are a common sign of autism. Particularly in very smart children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a very stoic demeanor is common though not always present. If your child is also struggling socially, perhaps with pretend play or in focus, with sharing attention with others (joint attention), parents may want to consider an evaluation for autism
Sometimes gifted children will have limited facial expressions. They may seem overly serious, like a little professor or an adult. They sometimes use big words and prefer to talk in facts and figures, rather than feelings and relationship terms
Children with autism or giftedness may be naturally a bit ‘rigid’ or ‘flat.’ They may have a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. Sometimes they get very stuck on certain ideas and are unwilling to consider alternative explanations. As a result, their expressions may remain overly serious and stern
Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’)
‘Small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen in the course of childhood. Even with a more common distressing experience, such as family strife, school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama; a child’s emotional expression can be affected. If your child seems flat emotionally, it will be important to get curious about what could be happening internally. Often, small t traumas cause significant and ongoing stress that can lead to poor coping mechanisms and persistent emotional regulation problems. In this case, trauma treatment is required to help your child develop improved emotional expression.
Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’)
‘Big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. It is very common for children to have significant emotional expression issues after experiencing traumatic events. Care for children with big t trauma experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care.
What to Do About Emotional Expression in Childhood
Children who have a flat emotional expression may have behavior problems in the classroom and at home. Setting up the environment for success is important for these children. As a parent, it is equally important to be gentle and compassionate toward yourself. Kids who are struggling to express their emotions can be challenging. Be patient with yourself and your child. Do not expect your child to instantly open up to you. Rather, create a safe and warm environment where the child can feel more comfortable expressing feelings.
Top 5 Things Parents Can Do to Help a Child with Emotional Expression
- DO keep listening. When your child pulls away for long periods know later they may be willing to tell you about their feelings. Be patient and stay open to hearing their thoughts.
- DON’T pepper your child with questions. Sometimes your child needs a minute to think about their feelings before being ready to share. Do not incessantly ask your child what he thinks or feels. Instead, offer your own insights and leave space for the child to join you. For example, you might say, “Wow, that was really scary seeing that car accident. My legs are still shaking.” After sad news about a lost grandparent, you might say, “It is so hard to lose a loved one.” Making comments like this normalize emotional experiences and give a child an opportunity to open up.
- DON’T give up, even on a teenager. When your teen pulls away know it is developmentally appropriate for a pre-teen or teenager to pull away from their parents. Sometimes you may feel like you never get to talk to your child anymore. In our own clinical experience, we have noticed that teenagers tend to ‘come around’ on their own terms. If it is late at night, you are busy working, or just about to run out the door, still take a moment to listen to your child. They may pick the most random times to share their feelings.
- DO cut yourself some slack as a parent. It is natural that your child will not always feel comfortable sharing everything they think or feel with their parents. It is okay to give your child some space and take space for yourself as well.
- DO model healthy coping strategies. With your child even when you least expect it, your child is watching what you do and say. If your child’s emotions seem bottled up inside, one thing you can do to help is model your own healthy coping techniques. For example, say out loud, “Wow, what a rough day that was. Some days are like that.” Sometimes a simple acknowledgment can go a long way.
When to Seek Help for Emotional Expression in Childhood
You may need more help if your child’s problems are more severe, resulting in frequent tantrums, a withdrawn or sad demeanor, or significant issues at school.
It may be that giftedness, anxiety, autism, or trauma explain your child’s tendency to express a limited range of expression.
Sometimes a thorough assessment is the key to determining specifically what types of therapies and supports will help your child thrive.
Professional Resources on Emotional Expression in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- School psychologist: to help with the learning problems, attention, or emotional issues at school that may be associated with limited emotional expression
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to understand whether or not a diagnosis such as autism, anxiety, or giftedness underlies your child’s challenges. A testing psychologist can evaluate cognition, social skills, emotions, and behavior and determine if a diagnosis is relevant to the issues with emotional expression
- Psychotherapist: to help your child understand what is coming up for them emotionally. A psychologist, social worker, or licensed professional counselor can teach your child to manage and communicate feelings
Similar Conditions to Emotional Expression Issues in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Cognitive distortions: your child may have trouble thinking in gray areas or imagining alternative explanations when bad things happen. When they are upset they may say things like, ‘it never works out for me’ or ‘you always take his side.’ These cognitive distortions’ may get in the way of your child’s ability to regulate and express emotions
- Rigid behavior: your child may get ‘stuck’ on having own way or adherence to routines
- Behavior problems: your child may have poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression due to unexpressed emotions
- Emotional regulation: your child may cry or have meltdowns intermittently with the times of limited emotional expression. Some children who hold inside their emotions for long periods will often have dramatic upsets, tantrums, and meltdowns
- Social skills problems: your child may have trouble socially due to a lack of insight into their own emotions or awareness of the feelings of others.
- Communication problems: your child may have difficulty communicating reciprocally with others both verbally and nonverbally.
Book Resources for Emotional Expression in Childhood
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine (2007). The Connected Child. Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.