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The Science of Emotions with Angie

Food dye, water and a syringe – any child’s dream experiment. On Tuesday, the HMP class was grateful to have a parent visit from Angie. Angie is a practising clinical psychologist who considers herself a relational therapist with a particular interest in complex situations where others may fear stepping in.

She has worked in various settings, including TARA Psychiatric Hospital (child and adolescent unit) and Soweto community clinics, lectured at UKZN and managed the psychology clinic. She is now in private practice in Pretoria. We felt honoured to have Angie join us to spend time with the Hatfield Montessori children.


Angie described the experiment as a therapeutic tool to help children see what emotions can do when not addressed. On the table, we had a jar of water representing our body and four jars of food colouring – symbolising each emotion. The emotions were joy (yellow), worry (green), anger (red) and sadness (blue). She started by asking the children to act out each of these emotions and then put a name to them. She extended this by asking the children when they feel these emotions. Some responses were: “happy when my sister lets me play with her”, “sad when I can’t have a playdate with a friend”, and “angry when my mom shouts at me”. The older children listened to one another and related to their friend’s emotions; the younger children had a blast acting out each and learning the names. 

She then started the experiment by asking the children to add a specific colour to the jar. We started with yellow. The children observed the clear water turn a sunny yellow. They were all in awe: “it’s so beautiful”, “I love that colour, just like a daisy”. We then moved on to the other colours, and as each colour was added, something curious started happening. The colours that were added were not the colour that touched the water but rather a mixture. The shade of the water kept getting darker and darker. One child even mentioned that it got a bit scary for them. Another said: “I can’t even see the yellow anymore!”

If we take this metaphor, Angie brought to the table, we can get a little glimpse into all the different types of emotions our children are dealing with – even an emotion build-up we might be dealing with too! Angie mentioned that another aim of the experiment was to show that if complicated feelings are not recognised or expressed, it will be hard to feel the joyous ones. If we consider that with every experience a child has, there is an emotion that transpires, we start to realise there are many that need expressing. These emotions are brand new and very overwhelming to the child. How can we, as their guides, help them with this? 

Acceptance and Acknowledgement

Angie’s advice: Keep an emotion chart up. She suggests having a daily check in before school and after school. 

Check-ins make space for acceptance. If we do this daily, your child can feel comfortable by accepting that each day brings new emotions. It can also remind us that even though the day might not start joyous, it might end.  Holding this routine can help us accept every emotion a child has, even the difficult ones. We might not like the behaviour or actions that arise because of them, but acceptance is critical. This is hard because, as humans, we have our own emotions that come up too! We might feel overwhelmed by an emotional outburst, but if we remember that this might be the first time we’re feeling an emotion, we can accept it. Being able to feel loved and acknowledged, even in our darkest times, is something any human needs – no matter how old we might be. 


Angie’s advice: You want to get to a point where your child is able to use words to express their difficult emotions and not their actions. Help to name the emotion that your child is experiencing accurately. 

Acknowledging this emotion is done by sharing the facts that we see. Sharing what you see with the child can make them aware of the behaviour or facial expressions associated with the emotion. “Oh, I see you have a big smile, and your eyes are lighting up. You must be so happy” or “I see you have a frown and you have pursed lips; you seem angry”. Naming these emotions can be done during a neutral time so the child can start assimilating this when sitting with the emotion.

Expressing and Processing

Angie’s Advice: After naming the emotion it is helpful for you to assist in expressing it in a healthy way. Stories of how you handled difficult emotions in helpful and unhelpful ways can encourage children. This way they know that you also make mistakes and you were able to learn and grow from them.

Processing emotions is critical for a first-timer. They can’t do it themselves, so we are here to offer a safe space to let it all out. If we dampen them or shun this, a child could start putting a lid on their emotional jar. And that’s when it gets murky and scary. Words of comfort and understand. Something like: ‘I can see you don’t like that.’ Or ‘ding can help during an outburst or emotional overload you didn’t want that to happen. These can help your child know that you saw what happened and see them for where they are right now, not where you want them to be emotional. Later, we can share a story of when you had that same emotion and how you dealt with it. Focussing on what you know for a fact is imperative for them to process it. 


Guiding a child through this process asks for empathy, love and nurture. Even when their emotions are the highest and their actions are far from what you know, focus on how much you love this little being. How much they mean to you and how incredible it is for someone so young to be dealing with emotions you have too.  

Angie’s Advice: Use the daily emotion chart so that you can check in with yourself too!

And then finally, process for yourself afterwards, too. These outbursts and tantrums are very draining, and you must nurture your inner child too. Being honest with your child about how you feel and feel in the moment after can offer another tool for them too. They’re watching you deal with your emotions and can learn from this.


Angie’s Advice: Ask the teachers how the mood and temperament of their child is during the day. It’s always helpful to get feedback now and then  

As a parent and guide for your child, confidence is vital. Confidence might not come naturally but can be found by speaking to the other caregivers in your child’s life. Asking about specific behaviours or discussing emotions with other adults can build your confidence. 

When we assist in processing difficult emotions or try to understand what our child is feeling, we need to feel strong in how we feel. Children feed off of our strength and confidence. The child feels it as we model how we deal with our emotions. Knowing that you know best in challenging situations makes your child feel safe. They will feel free to judge

We thank Angie again for a beautiful session with the children and know that there will be many more talks of emotions as the weeks go on. If you’d like to speak more on this topic, join us at our Montessori/Confessions Circle to dive deeper into a safe space. Let’s strengthen our confidence together.

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  • Kiki

    Please extend our gratitude to Angie and thank you to HMPS for allowing this experiment. I found this article helpful and will be sure to do daily check-ins going forward.

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