By Alexandra Eidens
Helping children cope with their big feelings is tricky – and an essential part of parenting. When children can identify and handle their emotions, they will lead happier, more fulfilling lives.
Children deal with the same uncomfortable feelings adults do – anger, disappointment, and sadness. But unlike us, they may not have the words or skills to face those emotions.
Like many parents, you may find that helping your child manage his or her emotions while keeping yourself calm is difficult. The good news is that self-regulation – the ability to deal with feelings – is a skill that can be taught and learned.
Here are 9 simple and effective ways to help your children handle and even learn from their emotion.
Help them recognize their emotions
The first step in managing emotions is knowing what they are. Explain that everyone has feelings, and some feel good while others might feel not so good. Most importantly, share that all feelings are okay to have–even the uncomfortable ones.
Ask your child to name all the feeling words he can think of, and write them down together. Talk about how each one feels, emphasizing that all feelings are friendly messengers that come and go – they’re not permanent. Post the list somewhere visible, and update the list as new emotions arise.
Children can learn that feelings live inside of our bodies and create physical sensations. When we become angry, our face might get hot and red or our hands might clench into fists. When we’re nervous, our stomach might feel fluttery or like we might get sick.
When you notice your child having a specific feeling, point it out in a non-judgmental way :“I see your face is red and your arms are crossed. It looks like you might be feeling mad.”
Identify what triggered their emotion
Once children know what feelings are and can connect them to their bodies, it’s time to understand where they come from. Explain to your child that emotions usually result from something that happens around us.
When your child comes to you feeling sad, discuss what happened just before the feeling arose. As parents, we can dig deeper to help identify what triggered each new emotion.
In these moments, recognize that children are at the height of their emotional response – the emotional centres of their brain are active which don’t have the capacity for language, nor rational thinking. Now is not the moment to engage in a long discussion. Use simple words and questions to identify what happened just before they came to you.
Validate their feelings
When a child is having big feelings, it’s tempting to jump right in and solve the issue. But that would miss an important step.
Before moving into the problem-solving phase, take a moment to validate your child’s emotion. Phrases like “I can see why that would make you cry” or “It’s ok to feel angry about this” helps them feel understood.
Validation lets children know their feelings make sense. When parents try to immediately fix the situation (“Don’t cry! This isn’t that bad”), children learn not to experience their emotions or that certain emotions aren’t acceptable. They lose the opportunity to learn from a difficult experience while receiving the message that some emotions are “good” and others are “bad”.
By making the space for all of our children’s emotions – no matter how they may make us feel – we send them the clear message that all emotions are valid.
“There is no growth without real feeling. Children not loved for who they are do not learn how to love themselves. Their growth is an exercise in pleasing others, not in expanding through experience. As adults, they must learn to nurture their own lost child.” Marion Woodman
Teach coping skills
Coping skills are necessary for dealing with both feelings and stressful events. And they are best learned in calm moments–not when emotions are running high.
One of the simplest ways to teach coping skills is by modeling them. As parents, when we experience emotions, we can discuss them openly with our children. Sharing difficult moments, and how we manage them, is powerful too.
Identify the many healthy choices children can make when dealing with big emotions. Taking deep breaths, imagining their favorite place, or going outside to play are all examples of coping skills. Help your child plan for what to do the next time a difficult emotion arises.
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” L.R.Knost
Read books on emotion regulation
Fortunately, many wonderful children’s books exist on managing feelings.
You might start with ones that discuss general emotions like “How Do You Feel?” by Lizzy Rockwell or “In My Heart: A Book of Feelings” by Jo Witek. These options give an overview of the many feelings a child might experience each day.
For more specific strategies, choose books that target a particular feeling. “When Sadness Is At Your Door” by Eva Eland shares how a girl manages sad feelings by sitting with them and not pushing them away. In “Anh’s Anger” by Gail Silver, the main character learns to face his frustrations through mindful breathing.
Reading about characters who grapple with (and overcome) strong feelings helps normalize these experiences for children.
Provide an emotional outlet
Children benefit from a variety of ways to express their emotions. These could include creative writing, dance and movement, or simply talking to a friend.
Journal writing is a common and powerful method for processing feelings. Children are often drawn to journals as a safe place to share their strong (and potentially embarrassing) emotions.
There is no “right” outlet for expressing emotions, only what feels most comfortable for your child. Discuss the many options available to him for releasing feelings, and help him identify the most meaningful ones for him.
Most parents have experienced a big reaction to their child’s emotions. And it’s hard to stay calm and clear-headed when your child is upset.
In these moments, make a special effort to model the behavior you’d like to see in your child. Take a few deep breaths, say you need a break, or walk away for a few minutes to demonstrate how to handle frustration.
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes it’s not possible to be the role model your child needs. When this happens, acknowledge how you allowed your response to get the better of you, and how you’ll cope better next time.
Discuss the difference between feelings and behavior
While we don’t necessarily have control over our feelings, we do have a choice in how we express them. Remind children that all feelings are okay to have, but it’s what we do with them that matters.
Note that physical sensations often come from difficult emotions. The feeling of anger is fine to have, and may even make your body tense enough to hit someone. But that doesn’t mean that hitting is okay. Feeling nervous is okay, but snapping at your brother is not.
When we support children, they can begin to separate their emotions from the behavior that follows. When your child is calm, empathise and start a problem-solving discussion without judgment – “Your little brother sometimes takes your toys and that’s so frustrating for you. I understand, my little sister used to do the same thing to me – gosh it annoyed me. But, we can’t hurt other people, so next time it happens, what are some other things you could do when you feel frustrated and angry instead of hitting your brother?”
Maybe he’ll say he could hit a pillow. Maybe he’ll say he could have a code word and call for you – “SOS Mum” so that you can step in and help. Maybe he’ll say he could hide his really special toys from his brother and he could play with the others.
Discuss a plan together for healthy ways of expressing the difficult emotions that arise and don’t expect him to get it right first time or every time – this is a process
Instill a growth mindset
It’s normal to want to shield children from difficult experiences or emotions. But when that happens, they get the message that they are incapable of handling life.
Instead, we can teach children that difficult experiences and emotions can actually help them grow and improve. This is known as a “growth mindset” and is associated with many benefits – from academic success to emotional well-being.
Explain that uncomfortable emotions are simply opportunities to learn something new. Perhaps your child had a less-than-stellar reaction to disappointment and is feeling bad about himself. Use this opportunity to discuss the things he did well, and how next time he can make a better plan. Big Life Journal is one a wonderful journal dedicated to helping kids and teenagers develop a growth mindset. Check it out here.
You’ve got this!
Teaching your child to manage his feelings is one of the most powerful things you can do. And it’s not always easy or smooth so extend yourself a little grace when things don’t go to plan. The wonderful thing about parenting is that we can grow alongside our children, learning together. When we commit to a parenting path that helps our kids learn how to regulate their emotions, they become resilient in the face of challenging moments.
“May the flowers remind us why the rain was necessary.” Xan Oku
About the Author: Alexandra Eidens is the founder of Big Life Journal, an engaging resource to help kids develop a resilient growth mindset so they can face life’s challenges with confidence.