Managing emotions is difficult even for some adults (don’t tell me you’ve never seen someone yelling at a waiter), so it’s no wonder it’s a challenge for kids. Many kids are just learning what their emotions feel like—they haven’t developed the skills to manage those emotions yet. So how can we help our kids learn to deal with their emotions in a healthy way while they’re young? Let’s look at a few guidelines.
Teach About and Identify Emotions
The first step in teaching emotional regulation for kids is teaching your child how to recognize different emotions. If they aren’t sure what they’re feeling, they won’t know how to control it. Help them identify what they’re feeling by pointing it out to them when it occurs: “I can tell you’re feeling sad because. . .” or “I’m feeling mad because. . .” You can even have them spot emotions in characters on their favorite shows or movies. As they learn to see what different emotions look and feel like, they’ll be able to recognize what they’re feeling more readily.
Validate and Accept Emotions
An important part of learning how to help a child regulate their emotions is validation. Don’t downplay what your child is feeling by telling them things like, “it isn’t a big deal.” Feelings are a part of being human and they shouldn’t be suppressed. Help your child feel cared about by validating their feelings instead. Saying things like, “I understand that you’re sad right now, and I’m sorry” will help your child feel heard, and likely make them more willing to share their feelings with you in the future.
Emotions vs Actions
Help your child understand that what they feel and what they do are two different things. Emotional regulation for kids is challenging because they haven’t separated emotions and actions in their minds. For example, just because they feel like throwing something doesn’t mean they should or have to. Once your child realizes they have a choice in how to handle their feelings, they can begin to practice managing their emotions in healthy ways. And be sure to avoid disciplining your children for what they’re feeling. Instead, make it clear that the consequence you’re giving them is a result of their behavior (e.g. hitting someone).
Here are a few tactics you can use to help your child start managing their emotions:
Don’t Give in to Bad Behavior
It can be tough figuring out how to help an overly emotional child, especially if they’re prone to act out, but don’t be so quick to give into a temper tantrum. If your child knows that they’ll get what they want if they keep behaving poorly, they aren’t going to try to manage their emotions. Avoid giving in when your child is throwing a tantrum or exhibiting some other unacceptable behavior. Instead, when you see their behavior begin to escalate, guide them through calming exercises like deep breathing, taking a break, or switching activities.
Break Things Down
Children who are just learning how to regulate emotions might not be able to handle big steps yet, so break things down a little. Use emotional regulation games for kids—if your child throws a fit about having to clean their room, just focus on them doing their task little by little (like picking up 5 toys in their room) and give them positive feedback as they complete the smaller goals.
Emotions are powerful. And when you’re in the middle of a breakdown, it can be hard to stop and think about what you’re feeling. Help your kids be mindful of when they are feeling something. As they learn to be more introspective and analyze what they’re feeling, they can be more rational about how they’ll respond to that emotion. Encourage your kids to try counting to 10 before they react to how they feel. You can start this by reminding your child when they get upset to verbalize or think about what they’re feeling and why, and counting with them as they try to control their actions.
Remember: we all have emotions, and your kids are no exception. Even though you might be tempted to protect your children from any negative experiences, sometimes feeling things like anger or sadness can help you teach your children more about how to manage those emotions. And as you help your child learn and grow, don’t forget to check out Troomi for more parenting tips and tools!