How Kids Express Frustration And Sadness

Kids and teens express their emotions through actions. Here’s a stage-by-stage guide to what to expect during times of upheaval, like during the coronavirus crisis. 

Toddler throwing a tantrum

Children and teenagers are not little adults. They experience the world in qualitatively different ways than we do, and express their feelings about those experiences uniquely, too. We all are having plenty of gigantic feelings right now, as we cope with school closures, social distancing, and other restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus. While you and I might just go ahead and say we’re frustrated, sad, or angry over the current situation, our children are more likely to show their feelings rather than readily speak them.

Here’s a guide to how feelings tend to be expressed at each stage of development:

Infants (birth to 1 year of age)


Infants can’t understand language beyond basic, one-word elements. This might make us think that they don’t know when things are difficult in our lives. Research indicates, however, that infants can and do pick up on our stress by noticing our changed facial expressions and our increased likelihood to be distracted and/or irritable; feeling differences in the rhythms of the day (e.g., no longer going to childcare, being unable to take a car ride to nap); and, if we breastfeed, experiencing changes as mom’s stress can impact breast milk supply and constitution.

Make no mistake about it, infants can and do feel all of the basic emotions

Make no mistake about it, infants can and do feel all of the basic emotions:  sadness, anger, surprise, interest, disgust, joy, and fear. They’re also able to read these emotions in others. 

Given this, infants experience stress and big feelings, even though they’re pre-verbal. They’re most likely to show these emotions by changing their habits, including their sleep (night and/or napping), feeding times and/or amount, and frequency of bowel movements. They may also show more negative emotions than is expected for their temperament, or their baseline manner of responding to the world. 


Toddlers (1 and 2 year olds)


Although toddlers can speak, they do so in rudimentary ways about concrete subjects. The abstractions that surround us during moments of upheaval are not yet in their repertoire. Given this, they have no choice but to show their feelings through their bodies. 

Typical developmental challenges of this stage tend to be exacerbated by stress and anger

Typical developmental challenges of this stage tend to be exacerbated by stress and anger. For instance, normally-developing toddlers bite, kick, punch, throw things, and have massive tantrums even in the best of times. This occurs because the emotion center of their brain, the amygdala, is developing much more rapidly than the part of the brain that controls our impulses and outbursts, the frontal cortex. The imbalance between emotion and rationality tends to become even more out of whack when stress and big feelings are thrown into the picture, resulting in all of the “typical” toddler behavior showing itself more frequently, in a more intense manner, and/or for a longer period of time.  


Preschoolers (3 and 4 year olds)


Like toddlers, preschoolers may demonstrate more intense or frequent tantrums when they’re feeling frustrated or sad. This is especially likely to occur in the late afternoon or evening, particularly if they have dropped or are in the process of dropping naps. Exhaustion and big feelings don’t mix in preschoolers!

“…regression is quite likely when they’re stressed

Children this age also have only recently gained potty training mastery so regression is quite likely when they’re stressed. A child who has been out of diapers for over a year may suddenly start wetting or soiling themselves. A urinary tract infection and chronic constipation should be ruled out by a medical professional if this were to occur repeatedly, but once they’re medically cleared, considering the emotional roots of the behavior is key.


Elementary-Aged Children (5-8 year olds)


Kids this age tend to identify deeply with school – even if the identification is “I’m not someone who likes school” – and so having school taken away is a particularly major loss for kids in this age group. Given this, they may show increased lethargy, apathy and irritability in the mornings, the exact moment when they relive the loss of the beginning of their school day over and over. 

“…having school taken away is a particularly major loss for kids in this age group

On the other hand, they will likely have periods of boundless energy that can become destructive. Without the gross motor activities they used to get on the playground and in PE, kids this age can become overwhelmed and even aggressive. The more upset they are, the less likely they are to be able to play quietly or self-direct their activities, so they either destroy things – or their relationships with others, like their siblings – and/or they look to you to guide and shape their entire day. 


Preteens & Teens (9-18 year olds)


While this is a wide range of ages that contain a good deal of developmental variety, there are similarities in how our children this age behave under emotional stress. They tend to move in one of two opposite directions: withdrawing from us and acting tough, or getting extremely needy and attention-seeking. They may alternate between the two extremes by the week, day, or even hour. The withdrawal typically shows itself in the form of obsession with their screens and insistence that they’re “old enough” to handle everything that’s going on. The attention-seeking may be the warm and snuggly kind, especially if they’re in the early preteen stage, but also may take the form of incredibly intrusive, irritating behavior; they’d rather get negative attention than no attention at all.

“…this age range are also likely to have hair-trigger reactions over little things

When they’re feeling angry, frustrated, or sad, children/teens in this age range are also likely to have hair-trigger reactions over little things. You don’t have the frozen french fries they wanted? They burst out in tears, storm away, and slam their bedroom door. Their deep emotions pop out at the least likely moments, and typically are denied if you try to make the connection to their actual source of sadness.


Closing Notes


When we know why kids are acting differently, we can address the root cause rather than try to attack the symptoms. We all need a bit more grace these days, and by keying into the reason for your child’s actions, you can offer them that important gift.


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