Facial expressions for kids: Helping children read emotions

When you try to read the emotions of other people, you don’t focus exclusively on their facial expressions. You 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). 

But facial expressions are nevertheless crucially important. And your ability to decode them? They are linked with social, academic, and emotional outcomes.

young woman pictured three times, smiling, frowning, and looking surprised (eyebrows raised and mouth open)

For example, children with stronger face-reading skills may achieve more popularity at school (Leppänen and Hietanen 2001). They tend to perform better academically, too (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 at higher risk for externalizing behavioral problems (Chronaki et al 2015a), and they are more likely to engage in acts of overt aggression (Acland et al 2021).

And what if your child is very shy? Research suggests that poor emotion recognition can make it harder. In one study, shy preschoolers with worse face-reading abilities experienced higher levels of anxiety and peer rejection (Sette et al 2016).

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

Age matters.

Around the world, from Canada (Mao and Maurer 2010) to the Netherlands (deBordes et al 2021) to Italy (Mancini et al 2013) to Japan (Naruse et al 2013), researchers have confirmed that children become more accurate as they get older.

For example, we know that babies pay attention to our facial expressions, and at an early age they can tell the difference between, say, a happy smile and an angry scowl. We also know that

  • toddlers respond with sympathy to individuals who appear to be distressed (read more about it in this Parenting Science article);
  • 30-month-old children can accurately identify emojis that represent basic emotions (Lui and Li 2021); and
  • 3-year-olds can correctly identify happy and angry faces about 80% of the time — as long as the facial expressions are pretty intense (Bayet et al 2018).

But this doesn’t mean that young children possess a sophisticated ability to decipher all the feelings displayed on real, live face. On the contrary, it appears that face-reading skills develop throughout childhood and adolescence, and some emotions are mastered later than others.

Take two biggies, for instance: Happiness and anger. In experiments, researchers have found that 5-to-6-year-old children can identify both happy and angry faces with very high levels of accuracy (Gao and Maurer 2009; Gao and Maurer 2010; Lawrence et al 2015; Chronaki et al 2015b).

However, studies have also found that accurate recognition of sad faces takes years longer (Gau and Maurer et al 2009; Lawrence et al 2015; Chronaki et al 2015b), with kids as old as 10 years misinterpreting sad facial expressions as fearful ones (Gao and Maurer 2009).

And while kids tend to reach adult-like competence for all three emotions (happiness, anger, and sadness) by the age of 11, this may be true only for facial expressions that are very intense. When people display their feelings with more subtle expressions, kids are much less accurate (Garcia and Tully 2020; Chronaki et al 2015b).

Moreover, some emotions are difficult to recognize, even at high intensities. In one study, researchers found that kids were struggling to identify disgust or fear throughout adolescence. By the age of 16 years, kids were capable of identifying these emotions with roughly 80% accuracy (Lawrence et al 2015).

What about ASD (autism spectrum disorder)? Aren’t kids on the ASD spectrum less likely to interpret faces correctly?

There’s some evidence to support this idea. In a recent study, researchers tested the abilities of 98 kids with ASD, and compared them with 60 age- and gender-matched kids in a control group (Liu et al 2020).

The children with ASD took a bit longer to recognize facial expressions, and they were also somewhat less accurate in identifying fear. But the biggest difference between groups concerned low-intensity anger. Kids with ASD accurately identified low-intensity anger only 41% of the time (versus about 82% of the time for kids in the control group).

Are girls better at reading facial expressions than boys?

Once again, there is some support for this idea, but sex differences appear to be rather small. For example, in a study testing 478 kids between the ages of 6 and 16, researchers found that females were a bit more accurate in identifying happiness, surprise, disgust, and anger. No sex differences were observed for fear or sadness (Lawrence et al 2015).

How does culture influence a child’s ability to interpret facial expressions?

Contrary to a popular theory, the same facial expressions aren’t recognized everywhere, not even for basic emotions like happiness and fear.

For example, 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). So it’s pretty clear. As children grow up, they have to learn culture-specific cues about facial expressions. 

What can we do to help kids read faces?

mother kissing happy toddler

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

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 expose 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 here. (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

What else can adults do to help kids develop their emotional savvy? One of the most important strategies is to become your child’s “emotion coach.” To learn more, see my article, “Emotion coaching: Helping kids cope with negative feelings.”

In addition, for helpful advice about fostering empathy, see these evidence-based tips.


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Content last modified 10/2021

Image of woman displaying facial expressions of happiness, anger, and surprise cropped from a photo series by AlexSutula / shutterstock

Image of mother kissing happy toddler by digitalskillet / istock