Kids Recognize Emotion By What They Hear, Not What They See, Study Shows

Happy small girl leaning head on mother's pregnant belly and listening baby's heartbeat.


Key Takeaways

  • Children recognize emotions through what they hear more than what they see.
  • Being open and honest about all emotions helps children to learn healthy emotions.

A recent study out of the U.K. has shown that when recognizing emotions, children pay attention to what they hear more than what they see. This could have an impact on how children perceive the emotional currents in any situation.

Where adults can take in the whole picture, children pay more attention to what they hear in a situation. So, even if you put on a brave face for your children, if your voice portrays your true emotion, there's a good chance your child can pick it up.

What the Study Shows

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, reviewed both adults' and children’s responses to emotional body language and emotional voices. Sometimes the body language matched the emotion of the voice, and at other times it did not.

“When we asked them to ignore what they saw and tell us what the emotion was in the voice, all age groups...could do that, no problem,” explains study author Paddy Ross, PhD. “But when we showed them exactly the same stimuli, but this time asked them to ignore what they heard and tell us what the emotion was that they saw, adults could do this but the children found this very difficult," he says.

“[The children] were actively picking the emotion from the voice when told to ignore it. As if they simply couldn't ignore it,” says Ross.

The study backs up previous research to suggest that children have dominant auditory awareness. But it is the first of its kind to focus specifically on emotional interpretation.

Putting on a Happy Face 

When parents and caregivers struggle emotionally, they often try to protect children from difficult emotions by "putting on a happy face." This research suggests that the "happy face" may be less effective than they think.

Paddy Ross, PhD

If children find it very difficult to ignore the emotional content of a voice, how the parent looks and acts may have very little bearing on the emotion the child recognizes.

— Paddy Ross, PhD

Clinical psychologist Julie Futrell, PhD, advises parents that trying to hide strong emotions from children is not only ineffective but can also be damaging. “Younger children.. .have a keen intuition,” she says. “They often 'sense' emotions, and they often grow upset when what they are sensing doesn't match up with what they are being told by parents.”

Use Parental Strong Emotions as a Learning Tool

With the current COVID-19 crisis, stress, fear, sadness, and frustration are high in many homes. “Lots of parents during COVID-19 have been feeling anxious or afraid,” says Monika Roots, MD, psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Sanvello Health.

Monika Roots, MD

Sharing what you’re feeling, explaining why, and talking about how it feels to you opens the door to talking honestly about emotions with your kids.

— Monika Roots, MD

“Sharing what you’re feeling, explaining why, and talking about how it feels to you opens the door to talking honestly about emotions with your kids,” explains Roots. “And, when you can talk about feelings and emotions, you can talk about how to manage them too.”

“Being honest about how you’re working on improving your resiliency to stress or sharing what you’re doing to [keep] your anger in check shows kids that parents are humans, always growing and trying to improve, and that’s enormously helpful in developing their own emotional well-being and resilience,” says Roots. 

Keep It Age-Appropriate

Explaining feelings to children can make some parents uncomfortable because they are not sure how much information is too much. Futrell offers parents some age-appropriate tips for sharing emotions with kids.

For Younger Children 

Children from age 2 up to preteen have an increasing awareness of emotions. They can understand and learn about managing emotions if adults talk to them in words they understand. This age group doesn’t need all the details, but letting them see your emotions and explaining your feelings can help them to learn.

“An example might be, ‘Mommy had a tough day today, but I am okay. Sometimes we can feel sad. That just means we need to be a little nicer to ourselves,’” Futrell advises.

For Adolescents

For adolescents, you may need to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. By helping them to understand, it can show that you value that they are growing up and that they know what is happening in the world around them.

However, with that in mind, it’s still important not to burden your child with your problems, but to guide them in how to handle emotions by setting an example.

“For example, if your 13-year-old knows you and your partner have had an argument, use the opportunity to teach your child about relationship difficulties,” says Futrell. “One example might be: ‘People do not always see eye to eye, and that can be tough. Conflict is part of life though and doesn't have to be scary or bad. It's important to always listen to others, to also express your own feelings, and to use the conflict to grow together.’”

Protecting Your Kids

At times there will be moments that it is best to protect kids until you have a chance to discuss the situation properly. Perhaps you have a difficult phone call to take or you need a moment to gather your thoughts.

Ross explains that what children hear can change their perception of what is happening around them at the time.

“If young children find it hard to ignore the emotions they hear, then the simple act of listening to an argument at home while taking a [remote] lesson [or doing homework] could have an impact on that child's feelings toward that subject/lesson,” he explains.

He suggests that if there are emotional conversations happening at home that you don’t want your children to overhear, providing headphones with positive music or stories can be useful.

What This Means For You

Children are very attuned to emotions. It is important to remember that as a parent, you are a guide and can model healthy ways to handle emotions for your kids. If you struggle with showing your own emotions, it’s a good idea to seek out help. When you learn to process your emotions in a healthy way, you set the example for your children to follow.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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