JavaScript Event Flow

This article is intended to further your knowledge of the various phases a DOM event goes through.

Great resources to refer to:


Experiment with this HTML file to learn about the JavaScript event flow.

Event Flow

When clicking an element that is nested in other elements, before your click reaches its destination (target element) it will trigger the click event of each ancestor element first. Starting at the top with the global window object, the click event trickles down parent by parent in what is called the capture phase. This continues until the event arrives at its intended target element.

When the event can finally be handled by its intended target, we enter the target phase. The target phase is really just the very end of the capture phase and the very beginning of the bubble phase. Once the target phase is complete, and the target element handles the event however it wishes, we begin the third and final phase of the event flow, called the bubble phase. In this phase, the event “bubbles” up from the event target back through all of its parent elements up to the global window object where it stops. This is essentially the opposite of the capture phase.

How can I use this?

Let’s take a look at some generic code you’ve probably seen before that registers an event listener on some DOM element.

document.getElementById('target-element').addEventListener('click', function(e) {
  // Handle click appropriately

This almost always does exactly what you want. However, there is much to learn when exploring how exactly the default addEventListener() code above works with the aforementioned event phases. Consider the following HTML:

<div id="parent-element">
  <div id="target-element">
    Yay, some target text...

If we were to register click event listeners on both the parent and target elements above that do simple console.logs, we might see the following output after clicking the target-element directly:

target-element event listener triggered
parent-element event listener triggered

Hmm. Since the parent-element’s click listener got triggered after the target-element’s, it is safe to say that addEventListener()’s default usage registers a listener on the event’s bubble phase. So how, you might ask, can we register an event listener on the event’s capture phase? Well, EventTarget.addEventListener() actually has a neat optional third parameter you can pass in to indicate which phase you’d like to be listening to. The API looks like this:

target.addEventListener(type, listener [, useCapture]);

If you pass nothing in as the boolean useCapture argument, it defaults to false, thus registering an event listener on the event’s bubble phase.


The event API makes it possible for you, the developer, to stop an event dead in its tracks to ensure it never completes the current phase it is on. By calling event.stopPropagation(), on a particular event, you stop the event from moving onto the next element in its propagation path. This works with both the capture and bubble phases, and can be called whenever. To be clear, event.stopPropagation() will stop an event from traversing closer to its target if called in the capture phase, and will stop an event from bubbling up to any parent elements if called in the bubble phase.

What good is any of this?

Say you have event listeners registered on all kinds of elements on your web page. However, you only want the logic in each of the event listeners to be fired if the user intended on triggering the event on that specific element. It is probably clear now that clicking on some nested element is intuitively the same as clicking on all of its parents too. If you want to avoid triggering your event listener logic for each of these collateral clicks, we can utilize the event object’s API!

You can simply check your current element against to see if the passed in event was truly intended for the current element on which the event was triggered, or if the event is just making its rounds through its propagation path to get to or from its target. This may look something like:

document.getElementById('parent-element').addEventListener('click', function(e) {
  if (this !== return; // avoid collateral clicks from event flow

  // All kinds of logic down here that should only be hit
  // If the event was originally intended for this the `parent-element`
  // .....
}, true);


document.getElementById('parent-element').addEventListener('click', function(e) {
  // All kinds of logic down here that should only be hit
  // If the event was originally intended for this the `parent-element`
  // .....

document.getElementById('target-element').addEventListener('click', function(e) {
  // Logic to be triggered when the target-element has been clicked

  // Make sure we don't propagate the event up through the bubble phase so
  // other event listeners further up the chain do not get triggered
  if (this === e.stopPropagation();

Caution with ES6 arrow functions

This is all neat and fancy stuff, and if you’re feeling extra fancy you may want to use an ES6 arrow function as your second argument in a call to addEventListener(). Before doing this, I’d recommend understanding the possible pitfalls however. When using callback functions it is often very helpful to have the this argument dynamically bound to whichever object the callback is “referring” to.

ES6 arrow functions are not capable of dynamically binding this. Therefore, when using an arrow function as a callback argument in addEventListener() or something similar, the value of this is resolved when the function is evaluated. This means the value of this will often be the global window object in many cases, or some outer origin object in others. This implicitly prevents us from performing the basic this !== check we used before, since this will usually never be what you expect it to be! Note this does not make a difference when you’re registering event listeners on the window object itself, clearly. To see more instances where using ES6 arrow functions without the proper knowledge can be dangerous, read this article.


I strongly urge you to experiment with these concepts. To get started, feel free to check out this basic HTML file I’ve created. Open up the console and run it in your favorite browser. Happy coding!

Written on November 10, 2016