3 Ways to Help Kids Manage Their Emotions

Anxiety Kids Emotions Meltdowns

There are various aspects of life that feel like they should be intuitive for children, but really are not.  Examples of this include sleep (can all the adults have the nap that the preschoolers are trying to refuse, please?), eating (anyone else have the “I’ll only eat bananas” phase?), and the one I’ve been thinking about lately:  recognizing our own feelings and the feelings of others. 

Children need to be taught to name their feelings

Children aren’t born recognizing what they are feeling.  They just know that they feel comfortable or uncomfortable, safe or unsafe, and they respond accordingly.  And it’s not necessarily a skill that they pick up on their own as they grow.  They need to be taught that what they experience when a friend stops wanting to play with them is called “rejected,” or that what they experience when someone else has a toy that they wish they had is called “envious.”  And they have to be taught to read the emotions of others, both to know how to help and to recognize how they might be impacting someone else.

With all of us (including our kids) having spent so much time alone or on screens over the last two years, I’ve been hearing concerns about children having fallen behind in their social development.  I think all of us have become more awkward in our social interactions and may be having to relearn how to read and communicate about emotions.

To help our kids learn essential skills, we can model, name and ask questions

So how can we support our kids in learning or relearning these essential skills?  We can model, name and ask questions.

Model:  When you are experiencing an emotion, it can be helpful to model expressing it appropriately.  We don’t want children to feel like they have to take care of us, but showing them how to talk about feelings while also remaining calm and modeling how to handle your feelings can help children feel more secure and teach them how to talk about this for themselves.  You might say something like, “I feel discouraged that this project isn’t working out how I had hoped.  I’m going to take a deep breath and get some help.”  Or, “I feel really fascinated by this book that I’m reading!  I hope I get to read more of it soon.”

You can also model noticing other’s feelings.  Wonder aloud what someone you see might be feeling based on their body language, or make a guess at what a character on a TV show you are watching together might be feeling. 

Name:  Emotions are complex, and it can be hard to determine what we’re feeling ourselves, let alone what someone else is feeling.  Teaching children the names for their emotions can help them have more power over them.  I often talk to children about how they can have more than one feeling at the same time, even when those feelings might seem like opposites.  And children will often tell you they are feeling mad and then stop there.  In those situations, it can be useful to help them name the softer feeling (frequently something like fear, jealousy, or worry) that is underneath.  You can use feelings wheels to help explore emotion words (there are tons of them online, but here is one example). 

Ask questions:  It can be tempting to go straight to solutions when children are upset or overly excited, but it can be helpful to pause to ask a question about what the child is experiencing first.  A simple, “how are you feeling about that?” “what’s wrong?” or “are you feeling _____?” can help a child recognize what is going on for them and can sometimes defuse the problem.  And if it doesn’t defuse it on its own, it can help you find the right solution to try, since you might respond differently to a child who is feeling worried than to a child who is feeling overwhelmed (say, by too much noise), even though those might look the same on the outside.

Thank you for all you do to help the children in your life navigate their complex emotions!  Every time you help a child understand what they are feeling and name it, you are helping them feel empowered about their inner experience and helping them grow in how they relate to themselves and others. If you want more information on how to support your child, read our blog on helping your child when they’re anxious.

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