While the steps to regulating emotions are the same for any age, the ideas in this post are generally meant for kids under 12 years old.
Some children have difficulty regulating their emotions or expressing them in a helpful or appropriate way. This is usually a result of their inability to communicate effectively and a lack of knowledge about what to do with their emotions. When children do not know how to regulate their emotions, they tend to “act out” their feelings by behaving in a way that is frustrating for others and leaves the child feeling misunderstood. They often hit, scream, have temper tantrums, become defiant, ignore, etc. Listening to your child’s needs and teaching them appropriate ways of managing their emotions is an important aspect of parenting and can reduce behaviour problems.
Step One: Identify
Often, a young child’s “feeling” vocabulary is limited. The first step to teaching children to regulate their emotions is to help them identify their feelings. Use various words to describe feelings with your child, beginning with the four most basic: happy, sad, scared, and mad. Describe your emotions and your child’s feelings throughout the day. For example, I’m sad it is raining today or “I’m so happy we are having pizza for supper.” Also, encourage your child to identify and label their feelings by asking, “How do you feel?” or saying, “You look sad,” or for older kids, “I wonder if you are feeling sad right now.” It may be helpful to describe how your child shows his emotions externally. For example, “When you are mad, your face gets red and your hands turn into fists.” Keep in mind that talking to a child in the middle of a meltdown may not be effective and, in some cases, can accidentally reinforce tantrums, so it is often better to stay close by, let your child know you are there for them, and wait until your child has calmed down a bit.
- Practice different facial expressions in a mirror with your child and see how many “feeling faces” they can make.
- Play “Feelings Charades.” Your child takes a turn acting out an emotion, and others try to guess what it is (e.g. scared, happy, sad, surprised, etc.). Older children can do this in pairs, with one child acting out a feeling and the other acting out another emotion or an appropriate response to the first child’s behaviour (e.g. scared/comforting, surprised/happy, etc.).
- Make an emotion book with your child. All you need is paper, crayons or markers, and a stapler. You can make a book about one emotion or a book of several emotions and have your child fill the pages with things that make them feel that way. For example, a “Happy Book” can include drawings, images cut out of magazines glued on the pages, or photographs of friends and family members. Another approach is to have the book be about a variety of feeling words and do a page on each of several emotions (happy, mad, surprised, scared, irritated, proud, etc.). For children with a lot to say about their feelings, you may want to have them tell you a sentence about what makes them feel an emotion so you can write the sentence on the page. Then, your child can cut out a picture to glue in the book or draw a picture to go with the emotion.
- Use an “Emotions” poster to help them identify different emotions when upset (i.e., different feeling faces).
- Name feelings: “I am ….” (or) “You look…” (or) “You might feel….”
Step Two: Validate and Accept
The next step to teaching children how to regulate their emotions is helping them feel okay about their feelings, even the trickier ones. Despite the messages we receive, there is no “bad” emotion. There are only easier and harder ones. All emotions are helpful cues to learn what we need and understand the world around us. So, it is important for children to feel safe describing their feelings and learning to accept their emotions. With this, they are likely to choose better ways to manage them.
Validating and empathizing with your child’s feelings is the most important tool parents can use to help them accept and work on their emotions. One way to do this is for parents to briefly and calmly describe their hard feelings, keeping it child-friendly of course! For instance, “I’m so angry about this, I need to give myself a break to feel better.” This way, you act as a good role model and develop a positive, open, and nurturing relationship with your child around difficult emotions.
Telling your child when they become upset that it is “okay and normal” to be mad, sad, or scared helps them to feel safe and not embarrassed by their feelings. After all, it’s not their emotions that are causing problems; it’s how they deal with their emotions that needs to be worked on. As a parent, it’s essential to separate the emotion that is happening on the inside from the behaviour that is happening on the outside. For instance, it is fair for your child to feel angry when they don’t want to do something you have asked, but it’s not okay for them to yell at you.
- Read books: Children’s books are a great way to teach your child about emotions, and they help validate their experiences and let them know they are not alone.
- Examples of books are: “When Sophie gets angry, really really angry”, “When your happy and you know it…”, “My many coloured days” “Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” or any of the feeling series books by Trace Moroney: “When I’m feeling (sad, angry, scared, etc.).” Your local librarian can also help identify suitable, age-appropriate reading materials.
Step Three: Manage
Once you can talk to your child about their feelings, the next step for children in learning to regulate their emotions is to teach them appropriate ways of managing or coping with them, particularly the trickier ones. Often, when children are frustrated, angry, sad, embarrassed, or afraid, we tend to see misbehaviour occur. That is to say, we don’t typically look for better ways for our children to show us how they are happy or excited!
As a parent, you can help your child learn positive ways to manage their emotions. The most important thing you can do is find helpful ways to regulate and cope when you are upset. Children are constantly watching their parents, and it is unfair to expect our children to do something we cannot do! Strategies you can teach your child include taking deep breaths, counting to 10, taking a break, or using positive self-talk like “I can do this,” “I am strong,” or “I’ll feel better soon.” Encourage your child to try different strategies and find what works best for them. Then, check in with your child to see if what they are doing is working. Don’t forget to praise and congratulate your child when they express their feelings in helpful ways.
- Have your child draw their feelings on a balloon and give them the option to keep it, let it go, or pop it.
- Breathing exercises can help to release tension and anger in children. Practice relaxation exercises with your child when they are feeling calm first. A common technique is to breathe in through the nose, pause, and slowly breathe out through the mouth. When upset, your child may need you to do the breathing exercises with them.
- Encourage your child to draw, colour, or write about what is upsetting them on paper. They may want to tear the anger/disappointment/frustration into little pieces and “throw it away,” or older children may want to write in a journal they keep.
- Teach your child some basic positive statements to say to themselves during stressful situations, such as, “I can handle this,” “Stop and calm down,” and “It’s going to be okay.”
- Go outside and talk to your child about how emotions pass like clouds in the sky. Even if they do nothing, it’s helpful to remember that emotions are transient and with time, all emotions pass.
Helping your child learn to regulate their emotions is an important part of parenting. By identifying feelings, validating them, and teaching positive ways to manage them, you can help your child develop emotional intelligence and reduce behavioural problems. Remember to be patient, consistent, and always offer support and understanding to yourself and your child. Helping a child when they have big emotions is one of the most challenging jobs we have as parents. With time and support kids can learn to regulate their emotions. So give yourself some credit for trying your best, remember you are not alone in this challenge, and just keep at it!
Danielle Rozon, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist