Understanding and Nurturing Emotional Competence

Children need to learn to recognise and understand their emotions so they can gain control over what the emotional brain is telling them. Emotional competence is the ability to be aware of feelings but also to take account of what you think before you decide on a course of action. The emotional brain is powerful and learning to manage it is a major life achievement. Learning to coordinate the emotional and the rational brain has been compared with learning to ride an elephant[i]. The human may try to think and plan where he wishes to go but the animal beneath him is hugely strong and powerful and not totally predictable.

There are 5 skills which children need to manage their emotional wellbeing.

Recognizing your emotions: being able to monitor your feelings from moment to moment allows you to decide what to do.

Managing your emotions: being able to self-regulate strong feelings avoids you being at the mercy of powerful emotions which can undermine what you set out to do

Self- motivation: is managing the conflict between seems attractive in the short term and working towards longer term goals. Resisting the power of our emotional impulses requires considerable self- discipline and restraint.

Recognizing emotions in others: empathy allows us to recognize what others may be feeling and theory of mind allows us to separate their feelings and needs from our own.

Developing and maintaining relationships: the art of relationships depends upon sensitivity to the needs of others and fluent social skills to build rapport and trust.

These 5 skill areas develop gradually over the course of a lifetime. Some people learn to ride the elephant while others have only limited control. Developing emotional competence is rarely achieved without sensitive adult support. .

Recognising emotions

Children are particularly at the mercy of powerful emotions, their vulnerability and need for protection is acknowledged by nature which provides them with super-strength emotional reactions, which alert the child to potential danger and also makes sure that any adult in a 500 yard radius can’t ignore the fact either. This reaction is called attachment behaviour, designed to protect the child and keep adults tuned in to ensure children are safe. Attachment behaviour persists throughout childhood but becomes more muted as young people gain confidence in their ability to handle situations by themselves or with the help of friends.

Babies first become aware of their feelings when they are reflected back to them. A smiling child who is smiled at in return and who senses matched body language and tone of voice begins to recognize enjoyment. An anxious baby becomes soothed by the reassurance shown to them which recognizes their anxiety and holds them safe from it. The synchrony between child and parent mirrors and matches the child’s feelings and allows the child to recognize what is happening. Later the words being used add meaning and the language of emotion is shared.

Managing emotions

When a child is engulfed by their emotions they cannot stand back from them and need an adult to provide reassurance and practical support to:

  •  help them feel safe and protected from harm even if objectively there is no threat
  • build trust that the adult will be consistent and reliable in helping them manage strong feelings
  • reduce the over-aroused physiological state which accelerates the flight or fight response
  • teach the child the language to recognize and label this pattern of feeling


This is based on a section on emotional wellbeing in What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful by Jeni Hooper, Child Psychologist. Published by Jessica Kingsley ©



[i] Jonathan Haidt uses this metaphor in his book  The Happiness Hypothesis. Arrow Books 2006


About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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