Helping Kids Deal With Big Emotions

Some children act out because they have a hard time regulating their own emotions. This is a common problem for young children who haven’t yet developed the ability to cope with big emotions in a constructive way. Some children continue to struggle with self-regulation as they get older. Parents and teachers may notice that they seem particularly sensitive and have outsized emotional reactions compared to their siblings or peers.

The good news is that self-regulation is a skill that can be taught like any other, and parents can play a big role in helping kids learn how to handle their emotions, even very big emotions. Here are some techniques for helping kids calm down instead of act out.

Developing emotional IQ

Taking the time to notice and label emotions helps kids begin to pay attention to how they are feeling. This is important because paying attention to our emotions is the first step to learning how to manage them. Sometimes just articulating an emotion helps to defuse it. Too often we try to pretend we aren’t feeling negative emotions until it’s too late and we are feeling terrible. Acknowledging a negative feeling can make it seem less powerful and helps you begin to think constructively about what to do with that feeling.

Parents can help teach children to do this by modeling it in their own behavior. For example, if you are upset because you forgot something at the grocery store, share that feeling: “I’m so frustrated right now! I forgot to get milk!” Then, after you’ve acknowledged how you feel, you can model coping and problem solving skills. You might say, “I’m going to take some deep breaths to calm down — that often helps me.” Then once you’re feeling better, you can say, “Now how can I solve this problem?” and brainstorm ideas.

Children will begin to pick up on the skills that you are modeling for them, but they might also need some extra support as they begin to learn how to deal with their emotions. If you notice your child is beginning to look upset, ask her to describe how she is feeling. Can she label it?

Just make sure if your child tells you that she’s feeling sad, or anxious, or angry, you don’t immediately try to talk her out of it. Sometimes hearing “Oh, it isn’t that bad!” can make kids feel like their emotions are wrong and inadvertently teach them that they shouldn’t share how they are feeling. Instead, you can validate the emotion (“Yes, that does sound frustrating” or “You do look disappointed”) and then encourage healthy ways of dealing with that feeling.

Heading off big emotions

Another important part of a child learning to consciously label his emotions is that it encourages him to start paying attention to how he feels, which means that he might notice an emotion earlier, before it starts to feel overwhelming.

Parents can sometimes be blindsided by the strong emotions children show during tantrums. But kids don’t go from calm to sobbing on the floor in an instant — even if it seems like that. Emotions build over time, like a wave. Kids can learn to manage those emotions that seem overwhelming by noticing and labeling them earlier, before that wave gets too big.

Many kids benefit from ranking how strong their emotions are on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being calm and 10 being furious. You can model doing this, too. When you are feeling frustrated because you forgot to get milk at the grocery store, you might announce that you’re at a 4.  It might feel silly to do this at first, but it teaches kids to pause and notice how they are feeling. For kids who appreciate visual aids, something like a “feelings thermometer” might help.