Understanding the four ways children express emotion

Small boy holds broken paper cutout family


Understanding the four ways children express emotion

When a practitioner is presented with a child communicating whilst in a distressed state, the important aspect is the distress, rather than the way it is being expressed.

We can ‘listen to’ the feelings the child is expressing, and empathise with the needs which these feelings reflect, and sometimes overlook the content.  The content of the child’s communications may often be misleading because children who cannot express their emotions directly (“I am angry”), may often do so indirectly (“Fxxxxx cow! I hate you!”). 

We need to respect our school's conduct code, but if we only treat the content of this ‘indirect’ response as a breach of social boundaries, then we are missing the point.  We can instead recognise the statement as a poorly formed communication of feelings and try to understand the root causes. 

Four communications modes

Children communicate verbally and nonverbally, and they can use those methods to express their feelings directly or indirectly (also known as ‘refractively’[1]).  

From this we get four distinct modes of expression:

table showing direct v, indirect and verbal v/ nonverbal modes - text also on page

For VI readers, image text is below[2]

Children with social emotional and mental health often find it hard to communicate feelings verbally and directly.   Nonverbal refractive displays are particularly difficult to manage – when a child kicks over the waste bin or throws books the teacher must respond but has limited personal investment in the books or the bin. But what if the child scratches the teacher’s new car with a coin? 

Ideally, we learn to communicate our concerns including any negative feelings back to the child in a safe way. Even the kicking over of the bin will have had some personal impact on the teacher – some additional stress - irritation that the lesson is disrupted and raised anxiety about delays in whole class progress, perhaps…

How should we respond to these indirect and nonverbal communications of emotional state?  When we understand why children resort to these modes of expression the case becomes even stronger for doing something more long-lasting than applying the correct sanction for that particular breach of code.   

[1] Because the response comes back at an odd angle (as through a prism) rather than reflecting what went before.

Verbal direct (Child says, “I feel angry!”)

Verbal indirect (‘Child says, “you’re stupid and ugly!!”)

Nonverbal direct (Child shows angry face, turns away from teacher, crossed arms, hunched shoulders)

Nonverbal indirect (Child damages teacher’s personal property (to make the teacher feel what they are feeling)

How childrens' emotions undermine their communications skills

Threat and Need

As Maslow pointed out, when we feel threatened it is our ability to meet our needs that is at risk.  When we talk about ‘level’ of threat we are really referring to: -

  • different types of threat
  • different levels of immediacy

A summary of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is below if you need it.

Low threat

  • Threats to our 'self-actualization' needs are important, but these are something we aspire to and are not essential to our survival.  Self-actualization goals are often long-term (academic study, get a better job, buy a house) so the threat is not immediate. 

Medium threat

  • Threats to our need for ‘love and belonging’ are much more painfully emotional.  If our social support network is damaged there is an immediate threat to our emotional well-being and a medium-term threat to our safety.  

High threat

  • Threats to our ‘safety and security’ frequently need immediate resolution. If the threat is to our ’physiological’ needs the anxiety level is extreme.

Anxious arousal in children in need

Children often perceive a higher level of threat than the situation warrants. Actually, a teacher may not be aware how threatening they appear when they intervene forcefully to deal with a conduct issue. 

But the most likely reason that a child perceives a high threat level is that the child's basic needs are not being securely well met.  So much is uncertain, damaged or damaging in their lives that they feel unprotected and vulnerable most of the time.  Their level of ‘anxious arousal’ is already high.   Any additional stress raises anxiety to unsustainable levels. 

This insecurity is seldom 'worn on the outside' - only those seeking the inside perspective (see resource article) will realise it.

When the body feels fear it reassigns its resources to protect itself. The neocortex (the thinking social brain) becomes less active and the limbic system (the seat of our emotions) more active. As the threat level rises further the limbic system gives way to the basal ganglia (sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain).  

There is a corresponding shift in the way we respond. From being able to use our language and social skills to the full, our communications become more nonverbal, and more emotional. When the basal ganglia is in charge we are not really relating at all. We are strategically assessing whether the threat can best be reduced by fighting it, running away, or freezing – playing dead, in other words.

We've all had THAT dream

To illustrate this we can reflect on THAT dream - the one we have all had.  It involves being chased and having to open a door to get away.  Something akin to that.  In the dream, opening the door seems impossible.  Our terror prevents is from doing that simple thing.  We may also in our waking lives have been in a situation of very high anxious arousal - perhaps around a personal emergency. Even the simplest of tasks might then have seemed difficult - stopping the hands from shaking long enough to get a key in its lock, for instance. 

It is not being suggested that children are terrified in the classroom :-) 
But children with additional needs often have high levels of anxious arousal which undermines their ability to communicate effectively and respond prosocially.  They  are less able to manage high levels of stress and anxiety and operate their (emerging) high-level social and communications skills.  


table showing links between threat, needs, and brain activity as explained in text

Anxiety and Fear are basic responses to perceived threat. As the energetic level of these feelings increases, higher level competencies become hard to sustain.  Our mental energy shifts from intelligent activity to the need for safety and survival.  Our most pressing need slips down the ‘Maslow Hierarchy’, away from ‘self-actualization’ towards self–preservation (safety needs) and protecting ourselves from harm (physiological needs).  As it does so the source of our motivation shifts from the ‘neocortex’ or higher brain functions to the ‘sub-cortex’ which manages our primitive responses.

We can think of this as a temporary loss of social and relational skills.

As the Basal Ganglia becomes most active, social skills, thinking and dialogue skills are reduced, and basic reactions take over. Psychologically available options reduce to:

  • Freeze (a response to feelings of terror)
  • Flight (panic)
  • Fight (rage)

When we are in a ‘half-way’ state there may be a mixed response. There is a more strategic element to the child’s behaviour as they try to accommodate these uncomfortable feelings by ‘displaying’ these types of response without being as yet overwhelmed by them.


  • ‘Mild’ Terror leads to refusal, rejection and disconnection as a precursor to freezing
  • ‘Mild’ Panic leads to avoiding, hiding, movement, and hysteria as a precursor to flight
  • ‘Mild’ Rage leads to shouting, arguing, movement, and verbal attack as a precursor to fighting

Dealing with displays driven by ‘basic fears’:

These overwhelming urges to flight, freeze or fight are often short-lived. We respond to ‘perceived’ threats, and these are often imaginary.   For children, safety and security are provided by adults whom they trust. When we see these ‘primitive’ emotions we know the child does not feel safe, and our focus needs to shift to providing, immediately, a sense of safety.  Other issues must wait, because a child cannot respond to complex social interventions in this state. 

We can recognise that the child’s communications skills at this time are weak and that includes listening and hearing correct meaning. 

What we say needs to be adjusted towards short sentences, without complicated ideas.

We can ask ourselves (and the child) these sorts of question:

  • How can I make this child feel safe, right here, right now?
  • What is the most reassuring thing I can say?
  • What is the most reassuring thing I can do?

Perceptions can change quickly once the child is reassured that they are safe and secure. This will be much easier if we have already grown a positive relationship with them. The factors which triggered the panic, terror, or rage attack will need to be addressed through follow-up casework.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia wikilink


Maslows pyramid shows physiological, safety, social, esteem, with self-actualization needs at the top

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. He then decided to create a classification system which reflected the universal needs of society as its base and then proceeding to more acquired emotions.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioral motivation. Maslow used the terms "physiological", "safety", "belonging and love", "social needs" or "esteem", and "self-actualization" to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move. This means that in order for motivation to occur at the next level, each level must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Furthermore, this theory is a key foundation in understanding how drive and motivation are correlated when discussing human behavior. Each of these individual levels contains a certain amount of internal sensation that must be met in order for an individual to complete their hierarchy.The goal in Maslow's theory is to attain the fifth level or stage: self-actualization.

Maslow's theory was fully expressed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. The hierarchy remains a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction. Maslow's classification hierarchy has been revised over time. The original hierarchy states that a lower level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before moving onto a higher pursuit. However, today scholars prefer to think of these levels as continuously overlapping each other.  This means that the lower levels may take precedence back over the other levels at any point in time.


Copyright and usage

The content of this article may be used only for non-commercial purposes under the following conditions

.1 Teaching children or training staff in-house

The content must be acknowledged as the work of Dr Adam Abdelnoor

Any resources used should be used unedited or altered in any way.

2. For other non-commercial activities

The content must be acknowledged as the work of Dr Adam Abdelnoor

Any resources used should be used unedited or altered in any way.

Any quotes references or other usage should be attributed to the author and cited as follows: 


Dr Adam Abdelnoor, 2018, The relational approach: user guide and manual (submitted manuscript)