There’s no doubt that the littlest people in our lives are often the ones with the biggest feelings. As a parent or teacher, an important part of our job is helping kids learn about and manage their emotions. That can feel like an overwhelming or daunting task to even the most experienced educators and emotionally intelligent among us! So, lets tackle this together and explore some key themes and ideas for helping little people navigate big feelings…
Name it to tame it
Developing our little ones emotional literacy’s a great starting place. Kids need practice to be able to recognise and name emotions. But why does this help? Research tells us that when we are able to put words to our feelings this ‘down-regulates’ the limbic system (i.e. calms emotions and soothes the threat response.)
One way you can help kids name their feelings is by pointing out characters in books and talking about how they might be feeling. You can start simple, like pointing to a character and commenting “he looks angry” or “she looks like she’s feeling happy about eating that ice cream” and then move into introducing synonyms and exploring emotions further, i.e. “he’s so sad, what kind of things make you feel upset?”, or “she’s stomping her foot. How do you think she’s feeling? ,” What do think made her so angry?”.
Here's a resource teaching kids about naming emotions:
Or you could pop up this lovely poster on your kiddos wall:
Next Steps - More ways to help children develop the ability to recognise their emotions
Name and explain (without blame) your own emotions e.g. “I’m feeling so frustrated today because things just keep going wrong…”
Model yourself experiencing emotions (and dealing with them) e.g. “I’m nervous, my tummy is full of butterflies. I’m going to step outside for a moment and take 10 deep breaths and then give it a go!”
Explore how children experience their feelings by asking questions about how emotions feel in their body, what their body wants to do when they feel it and what kind of things they say and think etc.
Play games like charades - Kids act out an emotion and others guess what it might be
Teach children that emotions ebb and flow and help them discover how big a feeling is. E.g. if your child is sad you might ask “are you a bit upset, really sad or totally devastated like this is the worst you’ve ever felt?” Or if your child is angry you might help them understand the scale of their feeling by asking “is your anger as big as this chair, or as big as this room, or as big this whole house?” Or “How big is this feeling out of 10?”
This resource is perfect for teaching kids the names of feelings to build their emotional literacy - it's also perfect for playing charades and other games!
Validate and empathise
Kids need to feel seen and understood. They need to feel like we get it, we believe them and it’s okay to feel how they feel. Allowing and validating their emotions helps kids build self-trust and the ability to regulate emotions.
Some simple phrases you can use to validate emotions are things like:
“you’re so angry about XYZ, I get it, that’s so hard!”
It’s so tough when XYZ happens
You’re really angry that I said no. You really wanted the treat/thing. It’s okay to be mad or disappointed
I feel nervous too sometimes. It’s normal to be nervous when you’re trying something new
Often when kids have tricky emotions we feel pulled to rush in and fix things, explain the emotion away or try to change the way they feel. Validating and empathising is about allowing space for the emotion to be felt.
We can also validate and hold empathy for emotions while simultaneously not allowing a behaviour. Validation doesn’t mean we don’t hold a boundary or that we are passive. This might look like:
“It’s okay to be angry but it is not okay to hit”
“You’re cross your friend took your toy. I won’t let you kick. I’m going to move you away so you are safe.”
“You’re so upset! You really wanted me to buy you the lolly. It sound like you want something sweet and tasty, I can get you some fruit or a snack but we are not getting candy today.”
Co-regulation leads to self-regulation. Our little people don’t yet have the skills or resources to calm themselves and manage their big feelings. As the big people in their lives, our job is to help them develop this skill by ‘lending’ them our calm and resources. We use our own modelling and steady presence to help and teach them to navigate feelings. In time, this develops into kids being able to manage their feelings on their own more and more - although we call all use co-regulation with a loved one or safe person to help us cope at any age!
Practically speaking, in a moment co-regulation might mean a cuddle while they cry, it might mean a calm and empathetic voice reassuring them, it might mean modelling deep breathing ourselves, it might mean helping them problem solve to work through frustration.
In the middle of a tantrum this might look like just being present and calm, perhaps saying “I’m here. You’re safe.” Or “you’re so upset. I’m going to be right here with you”.
Mindfulness is a great way to calm your own nervous system - These mindfulness cards are perfect for us adults, but are beautiful for kids to join in on too!
Managing melt-downs and BIG feelings
When kids are really tipped up there isn’t much to do other than ride it out! In these moments children are not able to access their logic and rational thought and language becomes hard to access. Some strategies to help survive the storm:
You can still practice naming and validating the feeling. Sometimes this helps. Other times you’ll quickly learn that a calm and silent presence is what’s needed over words
Keep the child and others around them safe - going to a smaller area together can help create a safe container
Remind them they are a good kid having a hard time, and that you’re there to help
Regulate yourself through deep breathing and a mantra like “I am a good parent/teacher. My kid is having a tough time, not trying to give me one!”
You can validate the feeling without validating a behaviour
This resource is a great reminder and education tool for parents, teachers and kids alike - It helps you understand the different states of the nervous system and the behaviours you might see that go along with each of them, as well as the physical, emotional and cognitive elements!
Build Coping Strategies and ‘Practice in the calm to access in the chaos’
Kids need to learn practical tools to help them manage emotions and its crucial they practice these while they are calm. Doing this helps their brains to build connections and cement learning so that they can access it when they are dysregulated.
Here are some practical and sensory strategies you can teach:
Deep breathing; try a hot chocolate breath!
Muscle relaxation. Tense muscles up first and then relax them (Great for anger and anxiety)
Count to 10 before acting (great for anger and impulse control)
‘Count Down to Calm’; name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste
Proprioception: try a weighted blanket, wrapping a blanket tightly around your kiddo or they can push against a wall with their hands (great for anxiety and anger)
Visualisation: imagine a calm and happy place (great for anxiety or sadness)
Get creative: older kids can journal about their feelings, or trying drawing out their emotions by imaging them as characters outside of themselves; how would this feeling look? What colour would it be? How big would it be? Etc
Play: Use toys to act out different emotions and solutions that might help
This resource is the ultimate emotional regulation bundle - chockablock FULL of strategies, information and tools for kids and parents to build emotional resiliency and calm:
At the end of the day, remember that emotions are messages from our body letting us know what we need or drawing our attention to something.
All feelings are allowed and all feelings pass us by when they are ready, just like visitors.
Compassion is the key - we all make mistakes and we are all on this journey together!
Grab my new kids book Big Feelings for the perfect resource to teach kids about emotions - it includes a section at the back for parents/teachers full of tools & strategies to help kids regulate their big feelings.
This article was featured in Swings & Roundabouts Magazine.