Behaviour: sadness

Child psychotherapists from the Anna Freud Centre
Tuesday, February 20, 2001

In the hurly-burly of a busy nursery it can be difficult for staff to notice a child's sadness

Nursery aged children can experience a whole range of emotions, and like the rest of us, nearly all have occasional times of feeling sad or low. With most children such times will be transient and pass quickly, but for some children sadness can be more persistent.

How do we know when a nursery child is feeling sad? In a busy nursery, with much activity, a child's sadness may not get noticed, especially if it is manifest by quietness or withdrawal. But facial expression in some children can be very eloquent - and it is always worth paying attention to a child who looks sad or 'far away'. Underlying sadness may also be shown by frequent episodes of tears and distress, perhaps in response to events which that particular child would usually manage without difficulty.

Sometimes a child who is very sad may use compensatory behaviour, such as excessive eating, and it may need the nursery team to think for some time about the whole picture to realise that the child is sad.

Throughout life, sadness and depressions are normal responses to loss and disappointment, which are, of course, inevitable, and thus, so is sadness. Many losses are concerned with growing up, but often these losses are compensated for by concurrent gains. For example, what is often the first major loss of childhood, that of the breast or bottle, is usually compensated for by the pleasure of new and interesting food.


Starting nursery is a similar loss/gain situation and, as every nursery worker knows, children vary greatly as to how much the gain (of a new environment with new activities ) seems to compensate for the loss (of a close and continuous link with familiar people). How children negotiate such developmental steps, and how much sadness they experience, will depend on a number of factors such as personality (some children have a strong inherent push to take new steps), the security of their attachment to their primary carers and the preparation and support they are given.

Children also suffer from losses of people who are important to them. Parents splitting up, illnesses or deaths of relatives (or even pets), close playmates moving away and the birth of siblings are all events that can cause sadness in children. The moods of parents and carers are also important - a sad or depressed mother can lead to a sad child.

Another potent source of disappointment in all of us, including children, can be ourselves. To have a basic sense of wellbeing and happiness, we need to have a basic acceptance of ourselves. We learn this acceptance through experiencing the acceptance of our parents and other primary carers, and children soon learn to wish for the love and approval of those who are important to them.

Some children, due both to experience and to personality, have a rather frail sense of acceptance of themselves, which can easily crumble into dislike and self-criticism in the face of challenges or perceived failure. Such children may speak very negatively of themselves, for example, 'David's bad', and even physically hurt themselves. If such behaviour continues, it is worth talking with the parents and encouraging them to consider asking for a referral for special help from their GP.


How can children who are sad be helped? Having one's feelings recognised and put into words is usually helpful for children just as it is for adults; with children, of course, it takes skill to find the right words which offer understanding at the child's level. Some quite small children are also remarkably well able to say something of how they feel to an adult who is listening sensitively.

It is also important for nursery workers to know when some untoward event is happening in a child's life that may make him sad, and this is more likely to happen if there is a good communicative rapport with parents. Sometimes parents may need some tactful guidance, for example, when explaining to a child that his grandmother is ill. Sad events make parents sad as well as children and for this reason parents may need understanding help so that they remember the particular needs of the children.


Sam was 18 months old when he started in a toddler group with his mother, who had arrived from overseas several months previously with her husband and only child.

Over the early sessions the workers in the group noticed that Sam's mother seemed quite withdrawn and preoccupied; they surmised that she might be feeling somewhat depressed, in a new country with a small child. In the second session Sam was observed to climb, with some difficulty, into a toy car and then look in his mother's direction. She was talking to someone and did not notice for a while. Sam remained motionless, smiling at his mother but with his smile becoming a little more fixed. Eventually she saw him, waved and said, 'Hello, my darling.' Sam's smile widened and he started to play at driving the car.

Some weeks later a similar observation was made. After climbing into the car, Sam smiled and scanned the room, but no one, including his mother, seemed to notice him. His smile gradually faded and he sat immobile in the car looking lost and sad.

In these observations it can be seen how crucial it is for a young child to have responsive feedback from those he loves (and these can include loved and trusted nursery workers). A young child needs esteem from others to build his self- esteem. One of the workers in the toddler group noticed what was happening and gently drew his mother's attention to his pleasure in the car.

There were several similar episodes but luckily in this case Sam's mother started to feel better as she adapted to her new situation.


Amy, aged three years and nine months, had attended nursery for a full day for almost a year. Initially she was rather timid but settled well, becoming a mainly outgoing and equable child who enjoyed the activities on offer.

Following the birth of a sister, the staff noticed that she regressed a little, for example wetting herself on a couple of occasions. She was also observed to be somewhat listless. On one occasion she started crying and when asked what the matter was she said she hadn't said goodbye to her mummy that morning.

The nursery worker explained that mummy would be picking her up later and she could tell her then how she felt. Later, Amy again burst into tears when she was restrained from pushing in front of another child on the slide and had to wait her turn.

The nursery worker took Amy aside to comfort her. She commented that it was hard for Amy just now while mummy had a new baby to attend to and that she sometimes felt a bit upset at having to share mummy with Susie and to share with the other children at nursery too.

'Yes,' said Amy, allowing her tears to be wiped, 'babies need a lot of looking after.' After a pause she added that she was a big girl and was going to the park with her daddy that afternoon. She then happily took her turn on the slide.

It can be seen that an understanding verbalisation of Amy's feelings and their cause allowed her to resume her play. She compensated herself for the loss of her position as baby in the family by the thought of being a big girl and having a special outing with her father. Her worry about not having said goodbye to her mother may have reflected her mixed feelings of love and anger, with the concomitant worry that anger may easily harm a loved one.

This article is based on a Nursery World 'Behaviour' series by psychologists at the Anna Freud Centre in north London, a registered charity, offering treatment, training and research into emotional development in childhood

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