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Helping Young Children Manage Emotions

How often do we find ourselves telling our children to calm down? It sounds so simple, and yet calming down is a very hard thing for most adults to do, let alone children. Managing difficult emotions truly is a skill, and one that we’re not just born with. As babies, we have very little ability to regulate, or soothe, ourselves. For the most part, we rely on our caregivers to help do this for us by rocking, holding or comforting us. As we develop, we slowly learn how to do this for ourselves—how to deal with distressing or upsetting experiences, how to soothe ourselves, and how to get our needs met in a world that is always changing. These are difficult skills to learn, ones that many adults still have not mastered! Rarely have the words “Calm down” helped anyone actually calm down… so here are some strategies that you, as a caregiver, can use to help support this process for children.

Photo by Jin.Dongjun

One of the first steps in managing emotions is figuring out what emotion we are feeling, or that we’re even feeling an emotion at all! Young children are just learning about feelings and the difference between being sad, angry or scared. When they have an experience that makes them feel any of these tough emotions, like losing a prized object or not getting their way, they may not yet know the words to express what is happening for them. So one of the most basic steps you can do to help your children manage their emotions is to help them name and understand what they are feeling. You can do this by saying things like:

“You look upset right now. How are you feeling?”

“I wonder if you are feeling angry right now. Sometimes I feel angry when I have to do something I don’t want to do.”

These types of gentle questions and prompts, when given in a truly curious and non-pressured way, can help children notice and label their feelings and know that it’s okay to have all of the feelings they are having. In addition to giving children the words to identify their feelings, it can also help to use visuals to help children express themselves. For example, they can fill in feelings faces or point to pictures to show how they are feeling. Besides increasing children’s general emotional intelligence, this strategy can come in handy when children are just too upset to express anything verbally.

After helping children identify their emotions, you can then help them learn strategies to manage emotions. Some basic techniques can be helpful for children to use in order to feel more calm and relaxed. Deep breathing is a simple but effective strategy to help children stop themselves from acting impulsively and to calm their body down. The goal is to have children take slow, deep breaths from their nose into their belly, rather than quick, shallow breaths from their mouth into their chest, which can make them even more wound up. At a time when your children are feeling calm and attentive, practice this type of breathing together by having them put their hands on their stomach to see how it moves out like a balloon inflating with air when they take a deep breath in, and then how it moves in when they exhale and let out the air.

Another proactive strategy is to set up a calm down area in your home where your children can go when they feel upset. Note that this is different than a Time Out area or any other area used for discipline or punishment. Rather, this should be a comfortable, inviting space where children can go or be encouraged to go to when they just need some time to cool off. It doesn’t need to be big or fancy, it just needs to be a place where children know they can take a break. You might choose to have some books and stuffed animals in that area, or other items that provide comfort to your children. This gives children (and you) some time to calm down before trying to solve or address a difficult problem. Now, in the real world, your children will not always have their own couch to visit in order to calm down! So it’s ultimately helpful to support your children in being able to take a break and find a way to calm down “on the inside,” so to speak. As children get a bit older, you can encourage them to think of their favorite place in their mind and imagine being in that place in order to calm their bodies.

In truth, one of the most important ways children learn is by watching the adults around them! I think we all have seen how easily our children pick up and copy the things we say and do. The good news is that we can use this to our advantage! So in addition to helping children identify and label their own feelings, you can model this step by labeling your own feelings. Finding times when you yourself are sad, angry or anxious and sharing this with your children in developmentally-appropriate ways can help them learn that all people have a variety of feelings. You can also demonstrate using a relaxation strategy to calm yourself down. For example, you might say, “I’m feeling a little frustrated and worried because I can’t find my notebook. I’m going to take a few deep breaths to help calm myself down. Would you like to join me?”

Finally, with all of these strategies, remember the importance of praising your children’s efforts to manage difficult emotions. It can be incredibly difficult to remain patient when your children are losing it! Remind yourself that children are just learning how to calm themselves down, and that all of the effort you and they are making now will serve them greatly in the future. So practice forgiveness (with your children and yourself) and praise each small step they make!



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