Helping kids understand their emotions

Sping Lim conducting the Lilo and Friends SEL programme for children to equip them with social and emotional skills.

SOMETIMES when young children are frustrated it may manifest as anger. At that age they don’t fully understand all their emotions and are not able to express themselves well. Therefore, it may look like they are angry when in fact they are just frustrated at their inability to express how they feel.

For example, if Dennis takes Tony’s toy, Tony might hit him. This is not because Tony is angry that Dennis took his toy. He could just be frustrated that he doesn’t know how to tell Dennis not to do that. So, he reacts impulsively by hitting Dennis.

In such cases, kids need to learn how to calm down first, then, how to express themselves using words, explains Sping Lim, co-founder and programme director at Lilo and Friends.

However, if a child is really angry and throws a temper tantrum, parents can let the child calm down first. Asking the child to stop being angry does not help because it just suppresses the anger. “It’s better if you tell them, ‘I know you are angry. You can cry for as long as you want. Once you calm down, then we will talk.’ Kids are the same as adults. If we take time to calm down, why should children be any different? It’s not so easy to stop being angry instantly. So, give children time and then talk to them when they are calm.

“It is also important to explain to them why they should not hit someone or throw a tantrum. They need to know why something is wrong because they are easily confused,” says Lim.

According to her, in most cases, the child’s anger can be addressed by the parents. Anger only becomes a serious problem when children start hurting themselves or others. This could be in the form of cutting themselves, banging their head against a wall, or pinching themselves. When parents notice bruises or marks on their children’s skin, they should find out if it is self-inflicted or if someone else hurt them. If it is self-inflicted, then it might be time to seek professional help, for example, from a psychologist. Not addressed, it can lead to bigger problems when they grow up, like cutting.

Clear up the confusion

Children become confused when adults are not consistent in their reactions. For example, if a child cries at Grandma’s house, she gets what she wants. Then, when she cries at home, she doesn’t get what she wants. This confuses her.

Lim says, “The child wonders, am I doing the right thing? So, for them, the easy way out is to just punch their friend (or whoever is near them) when they don’t get what they want.”

When they feel a friend has wronged them, they are further confused. Their parents tell them that if they do something wrong they must say sorry, but their friend has done something wrong and is not saying sorry. They have expectations and at this age they can’t really put things into perspective nor understand that everyone is different and just because you can say sorry doesn’t mean the other person knows how to say sorry. They also don’t understand that their friend does not have bad intentions and just wants to play.

This is why parents and teachers need to spend time explaining each situation to the kids and help them understand that every child is different and they can’t expect friends to be just like them.

Learning social and emotional skills

Lim, a psychologist by training, started Lilo and Friends with her business partner two years ago. The company has developed its SEL (social-emotional learning) programme which aims to help children understand their emotions and know what to do with them. The SEL programme that Lim built is now available in selected schools, where it is run by the teachers.

The programme helps children identify various emotions, understand what triggered them, and decide what to do about those feelings. It equips kids with the tools they need to cope with social and emotional challenges.

Sping Lim: ‘Our end-goal is to build positive mental health and to give kids a good foundation.’

“We teach them different lessons and give them guidance to face the challenges they would encounter at this age. Sometimes when children are angry they are just jealous. For example, if they have a new baby sibling, they might feel jealous, lonely and afraid … they have so many emotions going on and they don’t know how to express any of them, and it manifests as anger,” says Lim.

She reminds parents that just because some children are chatty and know a lot of words doesn’t mean they know how to express their emotions. Language skills and expression of emotions are very different.

Starting at a young age

Currently Lilo and Friend’s available programme is for children aged five and six, with each module targeting a different social and emotional skill. For example, Module One is self-understanding. It helps children know themselves better, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and learn what to do with their strengths and how to improve on their weaknesses.

“Five is the best age to start although we do have some coming in at four. It really depends on whether they can comprehend what we teach. At four, they understand a bit. They come to play but at the same time, they learn to express themselves. Eventually, they will be able to practise what we teach them because we help them connect the lesson with their personal experiences,” says Lim.

During a recent session on disappointment, Lim taught the children how to differentiate sadness from disappointment and what to do about it. For example, if they are disappointed that it’s raining and they can’t go to the playground, they learn that they may be sad for a while, but they can wait for the rain to stop and once it does, they can go to the playground.

“When they are in preschool, they are in a very small environment. Then, when they go to school and are in a class with 40 or 50 children, it’s a bigger community and a totally different environment for them to deal with. Our programme really prepares them to go out into the ‘world’ because parents can’t be there all the time to protect them. So, they have to learn self-control and what to do if they face things like bullying or teasing.

“Our programme is basically about starting from a young age to develop positive mental health. A lot of emotional or behavioural issues start from things like friends teasing them and they not knowing how to deal with that,” says Lim.


Lilo and Friends has a train-the-teachers programme where teachers are given the tools they need to conduct the SEL programme themselves. Each module consists of a story with a lesson embedded in it. This is followed by activities for the children to practise what they have been taught.

“In my time, we didn’t get to learn all this. If you had a fight with your friend, what could you do? We were expected to learn these skills over the years as we got older. But, I believe it’s very different now. Children are exposed to so many issues from a young age.

“The suicidal age is getting lower. When they can’t get full A’s, or achieve what they desire, some children choose to harm themselves or take their life. They don’t really know how to deal with that disappointment. This is something that is really worrying. That’s why we think we should make SEL something kids learn at a young age. The ideal scenario is that they learn when they are young, so that when they get older, they are able to deal with bigger problems because they have been given the tools to overcome social and emotional issues.

“Instead of trying to be there all the time and hoping that others will protect our children when we are not around, I think it’s be better to equip them with the skills needed to make decisions and evaluate if something is right or wrong, and what to do about their feelings,” she says.

Good mental health

Apart from the train-the-teacher programme, Lilo and Friends also has an after school/enrichment programme and the S.E.L.F (social emotional learning fun) workshop.

Lim is now working on developing the SEL programme for older children and even teenagers. As a therapist, she has found that a lot of problems that adults face is the result of something that happened when they were young. Because those issues were not dealt with at the time, they festered and grew into a bigger problem later on.

“Basically, we want to equip children with social and emotional skills. Our end-goal is to build positive mental health and to give kids a good foundation,” says Lim, explaining that learning social and emotional skills will help all children, even those who seem to have no problem expressing their emotions and get along fine with friends.

“Through our SEL programme, we seek to have early intervention and prevent risky behaviours. We hope it results in fewer children harming themselves and others, and contemplating taking their own life,” she shares.