Helping Children Identify and Manage Their Emotions

Helping Children Identify and Manage Their Emotions
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

We’ve all been there. Your 3-year-old has a meltdown in the middle of the grocery check-out line or you become beyond exasperated when your eldest clobbers your youngest for no apparent reason.

Feelings. They push us to our limits. They’re big and, at times, seem to come out of nowhere. We have difficulty managing our own emotions, so it’s easy to understand when our children have the same problem.

Explore some strategies to help your children first identify their feelings and learn to manage them in acceptable ways.

Name the emotions

It can be hard for young children to understand what happens when they explode with emotions. They may not have the language to identify a feeling; they only know it’s big and has overcome them. It’s helpful to clearly name feelings as they arise in daily life. You can say, “I see that it makes you angry when your brother knocks down your block tower.”

Another strategy you can use is to find a simple feeling chart with visuals to help children when they are feeling happy, excited, sad or angry. (Take a look online to find a free printable chart.) Then you can periodically ask, “How are you feeling? Show me on the chart.”

Model expressing your feelings appropriately

Make it a habit to tell your children how you’re feeling. Model appropriate ways to say you’re upset or frustrated. You might say, “I’m feeling sad that it’s time to go to school and you aren’t ready yet.” Or, “It makes me very happy when you eat all your breakfast.”

When everyone has had a bad day, you can own your part in the problem: “Mommy got very frustrated today and became angry. I’m sorry I raised my voice to you. Let’s have a better day tomorrow.” Children will be quick to forgive when you’re honest about your less-than-perfect day. They’ll learn that managing our emotions is a human problem.

Replay a situation

Sometimes it helps to replay a situation that went wrong to untangle and name the emotions involved. For instance, “It was time to brush teeth, but you didn’t come when I asked you to. Then we both lost our tempers.” Or, “When Julie took your toy, you became angry and you hit her. In our house we don’t hit, so what else could you have done?”

You can also take the opportunity to play back a situation you’ve observed when out in public. You might say, “Did you see what happened when that little boy cried at the park today? He wanted a turn on the slide, but the bigger boy wouldn’t let him. How do you think the little boy was feeling?” At that point you may have to help your child identify feelings such as angry, frustrated or scared. Then you can ask, “What could that little boy have done besides cry? Could he have asked a grown-up for help? Waited longer for a turn? Gone to play on another piece of equipment?”

Use simple cues

Some parents find that using simple cues such as “take a breath” or “slow down” help a child to self-manage strong emotions. This may take some role-playing to master before the child is able to actually apply the strategy in the midst of a tough situation.

Your child may learn to take a self-imposed time-out to gain composure and cope with a challenging situation. A soothing activity such as water play can help them to destress and become calm again.

Ultimately you want to understand what caused any given emotion. What is your child feeling and what does he need? Is she overtired and merely needs a nap or is there an ongoing frustration that needs to be addressed? “You’re feeling like your older brother gets all the fun activities. What can we plan especially for you?”

Be proactive

Wise parents create teachable moments throughout the day. They notice behaviors and give praise when good things happen. They verbalize their own feelings to help their children understand the wide range of feelings that we humans experience. They might say, “Wow, you really showed a lot of patience with Robby today when he said mean words.” Or, “I’m so excited that you have your ball game after school. I can’t wait to watch you play.”

You can also use read-aloud times to notice the emotions shown by characters in your favorite books. “Hmm, I wonder how Cinderella was feeling when the step-sisters wouldn’t let her go to the ball.”

Make it a family practice to show kindness to others and to serve in practical ways. “Let’s take some cookies over to Mrs. Adams. She gets lonely sometimes.” Or model being grateful: “I am so thankful for our home. We have a nice place to live and be a family.”

Managing our emotions is a big task and isn’t learned in a day. It takes practice to identify the feelings that are inside and lots of opportunities to make good decisions as we express them.

Parents, you have the chance to make your home and family life a training-ground for raising kind, compassionate children who care about others and who can own their feelings in positive ways. You can help your kids with “all the feels.”

—Jan Pierce, M.Ed.

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