Facial expressions for kids: Helping children read emotions

© 2009 – 2018 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Reading facial expressions isn’t the only way we understand the emotions of others.

We rely on a variety of information, including tone of voice (Paulmann and Uskul 2014), body language (Aviezer et al 2012), and contextual cues (Aguert et al 2013). 

Nevertheless, our ability decode faces is very important, and may be linked with several measures of success and social competence.

For example, children with stronger face-reading skills may achieve more popularity at school (Leppänen and Hietanen 2001). They tend to perform better academically (Kang et al 2017).

In addition, experiments hint that people who are better at identifying fearful expressions are more kind and generous (e.g., Marsh et al 2007).

On the flip side, children who have more trouble identifying emotion in faces are more likely to have peer problems and learning difficulties (Goodfellow and Nowicki 2009). Preschoolers with poor face-reading skills for their age are more likely to have externalizing behavioral problems, like hyperactivity (Chronaki et al 2015a). If they tend to be shy, such children are also more likely to suffer from anxiety (Sette et al 2016).

So what determines a child’s face-reading abilities?


We know these skills develop as children mature.

Around the world, from Canada (Mao and Maurer 2010) to Italy (Mancini et al 2013) to Japan (Naruse et al 2013), researchers have confirmed that children become more accurate as they get older.

Facial cues of happiness may be the easiest for young children to recognize. By the age of five, most children are able to identify happy faces with adult-like accuracy (Gau and Maurer et al 2010). But other emotions — like sadness, anger, disgust, and surprise — take much longer.

In experiments on Canadian kids, five-year-olds had trouble distinguishing between sad and frightened facial expressions, and even ten-year-olds tended to misjudge sad faces as fearful (Gao and Maurer 2009). In another study, children didn’t show an adult-like competency for identifying most emotions until they were 11 years old (Chronaki et al 2015b).

We also know that emotion recognition is influenced by culture. 

Contrary to a popular theory, the same facial expressions aren’t recognized everywhere, not even for basic emotions like happiness and fear. In studies conducted in Papua New Guinea and Mozambique, researchers showed people images depicting different facial expressions.

The images were from an official collection used by psychologists to depict supposedly universal facial expressions (Ekman 1973), but people in these places didn’t always interpret the expressions in the predicted way (Crivelli et al 2017; Crivelli et al 2016). As children grow up, they have to learn culture-specific cues about facial expressions. 

What can we do to help kids read faces?

Evidence-based tips


If face-reading competence depends on learning, how can we help children become expert interpreters?

Research suggests that parents can have an important impact on the development of emotion recognition in young children. Here are some evidence-based ideas.

1. Be a “mind-minded” parent — a caregiver who engages kids in insightful talk about emotions.

Studies suggest that children develop better “mind-reading” skills when we  opens in a new windowexpose them to accurate, sensitive talk about thoughts and feelings. In particular, kids develop better emotion-reading skills when their parents help them find appropriate labels for the emotions the observe. Parents can also help by discussing the causes and consequences of specific emotions (Castro et al 2015).

2. Ask kids to consider the overall situation and context, and use that information to make sense of facial expressions.

We shouldn’t expect kids — especially young children — to rely on facial cues alone. Young children can use their understanding of a situation to help them make sense of facial expressions (Theurel et al 2016). For example, if they see someone drop his ice cream cone, they can imagine how they would feel if this happened to them. 

3. Talk with children not only about facial expressions, but also about other forms of body language.

Children are sensitive to much more than a person’s facial expressions. They also notice tone of voice, body posture, and gestures. Whether you are reading a story together, or observing someone in real life, help kids make connections between different kinds of nonverbal cues.

4. For extra practice, try playing emotion identification games

Researchers have developed training programs that ask kids to practice categorizing the emotions depicted by facial expressions (Grinspan et al 2003; Hubble et al 2015).

For example, in one study, researchers gave typically-developing elementary school students training in the identification and self-production of facial cues. After only 6 half-hour sessions, children improved their ability to read emotions compared with controls (Grinspan et al 2003). 

Can we apply the same principles at home? One way is to assemble a collection of photographs, and use them to create “emotion cards.”

Alternatively, you can buy cards especially made for the purpose. For example, Picture by Picture sells a set of 40 cards depicting ten different emotions modeled by a diverse range of faces. You can check the price on Amazon opens in a new windowhere. (Note: Parenting Science will receive a small commission from Amazon for purchases made through this link.)

What can you do with your cards? Try these games.

Imitating faces and guessing emotions

Facial mimicry isn’t just an exercise in theater. Research suggests that it also helps us identify emotions and experience empathy (Sato et al 2013). So try this:  Shuffle the cards and put them face down. The first player picks a card, keeps it to herself, and then mimics the expression on the card. The other player(s) have to guess the correct emotion. 

Matching faces to situations

In this game, you’ll need an extra set of cards — each depicting an emotion-evoking situation. Then players will attempt to match each facial expression card with the most appropriate situation.

The images for your situation cards can come from a number of sources. You can draw your own, or cut pictures out of magazines. Some situation cards may evoke multiple emotions.

Creative scenarios: Why that face?

In this simple game, players take turns picking a card from the deck and inventing a reason for the facial expression displayed. For example, if the player picks a card with a woman looking surprised, you might say, “She just found a dinosaur in her bathtub.”

Collaborative, improvisational storytelling: A game inspired by a child psychology tool

The MacArthur Story Stem Battery is a tool psychologists use to get young children to discuss and imagine certain themes and concepts — like separations from loved ones, conflict with peers, and moral dilemmas. The psychologist sets up a hypothetical situation, and encourages the child to flesh out the details of what happens next.

In this cooperative game, players can decide together on the basic scenario. It can be fanciful or outlandish, but it should involve characters with realistic emotional responses. Then players create a narrative together, taking turns and building on each others ideas.

To begin, the first player picks an emotion card, and starts the narrative. He can take the story into any direction he likes, but he must incorporate the emotion depicted on the card — i.e., events in the story must reflect the appropriate emotion. The next player picks a card and continues the narrative, and so on. Players continue to take turns until they have used all the cards or  reached a satisfying conclusion.

More reading

For more information about the influence of parenting on a child’s emotion recognition abilities, see opens in a new window“The case for teaching empathy.” For helpful advice about fostering empathy, see opens in a new windowthese evidence-based tips.


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Content last modified 2/2018

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