When we are born, there are 8 primary emotions that are wired into our brains. These emotions are an involuntary reaction and cannot be helped. These primary emotions cause our body to react in certain ways, and create different feelings, responses and urges when our brain triggers these emotions.

The primary emotions consist of the following:

  • Anger: hostility, resentment, violence or outrage.
  • Sadness: grief, despair, loneliness or sorrow.
  • Fear: fright, panic, nervousness and anxiety.
  • Joy: happiness, delight, pride and enjoyment.
  • Interest: affection, love, trust, kindness, and pride.
  • Surprise: wonder, astonishment, and shock.
  • Disgust: distaste, revulsion and aversion.
  • Shame: remorse, regret, embarrassment and guilt.


All other emotions that we feel are made up by combining these 8 basic emotions. After we have felt primary emotions, we can then experience a secondary emotion. A secondary emotion is an emotional reaction to a primary emotion. Unlike primary emotions, secondary emotions are something that we learn as we grow. Secondary emotions are the ones that we need to concentrate on teaching our children to control. An example of a secondary emotion is when we feel remorse after we get angry or feeling anger after we have been shamed.

In order to control our secondary emotions, we need to understand why we had the primary emotion and so we can get to the root of the problem. This will help us to react appropriately and take action.


So what does this all mean?

Let’s say a child feels fear when they go to the dentist. This is their primary emotion and cannot be helped. This is an involuntary response to the situation. If your child is fearful of going to the dentist, so they get angry and start to scream and hit the dentist, this is a secondary emotion and can be helped. There is nothing wrong with being scared, and we need to nurture this reaction and reassure them. We cannot talk them out of feeling scared, as they did not choose to feel scared, it is just their body’s response to the situation at hand. Should they then have a secondary reaction, this is when it is time for us to step in. This emotion is the one that we have to concentrate on. We need to teach them that it is ok to feel scared, but being angry with the dentist is not going to change anything. Secondary emotions are the tricky ones to deal with, and often this is where parents try to use bribery and compromise to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, when it comes to secondary emotions, these responses just fuel the fire and teach our children that we accept the way they have chosen to react to the situation and if they react appropriately we will reward them.

Children will always have reactions to situations and primary emotions, it is up to us to let them know what we will and won’t tolerate. It is good to feel excited and proud if you come first, but if their secondary reaction is to tease and laugh at others that they beat, you need to teach your child that their secondary reaction should rather be on of humility and comfort.

scratch away the surface

Emotions are incredibly difficult to deal with, and often we let our emotions affect the way we react to our children’s emotions. The key is to understand if the emotion is a primary or secondary emotional reaction. Scratch at the surface to see if you can pin point where the emotion or reaction is coming from. Talk to your children and explain how they could have reacted differently and what response would make you happy.


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