Helping the Little Ones Deal with Big Emotions
Every human, big or small, experiences a variety of emotions. We all manage our emotions and feelings in our own way. However, when children experience big emotions, developmentally they do not have the capability to understand, express, or regulate how they are feeling appropriately. Helping young children manage their emotions can be very difficult and you may even find it hard to remain calm and rational as your patience run thin. As adults, we can be quick to get frustrated, lash out, or say things like “knock it off!” when our littles show big feelings. You may witness children shut down, throw tantrums, or even become aggressive. Little kids require the assistance of adults to validate, show, and teach them how to regulate big emotions that they do not understand. Here are a few ways to help explore emotions and work on developing better coping skills with your littles.
1. Help them recognize their emotions
As much as we want to assume children understand emotions, they don’t always know exactly how they are feeling. Start by helping your child label and name emotions. This can be a fun activity done together where children can draw faces, colors, or pictures that represent different emotions. Label these emotions with your children and talk to them about what this feeling feels like in their body. It may help to model these emotions for your children so they can recognize that all people may feel this way. Getting childrens books that talk about emotion regulation can be a great tool in helping children recognize their emotions!
2. Validate their feelings
When children start to express their emotions by crying, screaming, or tantruming, it can easy to tell them to stop or become frustrated and start yelling. It is important to remember that your child is trying to tell you something but doesn’t have the right words to say it. Using validating statements such as “I can understand why this would make you so sad” or “I would feel angry if this happened to me too” helps the child understand that they are not alone in their feelings and that expressing their emotions is not considered bad. Although staying calm may be challenging, it is important to not skip this step and validate their emotions in that moment.
3. Teach and practice coping skills
We cannot expect children to engage in an alternative method of expressing their emotions if we don’t teach them how. Developing coping skills with your child and continuously practicing these skills is very important for muscle memory. Create a list of alternatives your child can engage in if they are starting to feel angry, upset, or overwhelmed. Coping skills can be taking a five minute break in a safe space in the house, squeezing their favorite stuffed animal, or practicing deep breathing. Remember that a child is not going to remember what to do in a time of need if these skills aren’t being practiced or talked about when emotions are low. Children are always watching adults so remember that it is important for parents to model what positive coping skills look like for their kiddos!
4. Remind children that feelings and behavior are different
If children are becoming aggressive or destructive when big emotions strike, it is important to teach them that their big feelings do not equal big behavior. Using phrases like “I will never be upset that you’re angry but I am upset that you hit me when you are angry” can help a child understand that they are allowed to feel angry but they are not allowed to hit others when they are angry. Remember that you cannot take away one way of dealing with emotions without giving a more positive option. Practice those coping skills!
It may take some time before children learn, understand, and appropriately express their big emotions. Remember that children are never too young to meet with a mental health professional for additional assistance with regulating these emotions. If you feel that your child may need professional help in managing their emotions, contact your doctor to find treatment options that may work for you and your child.
Karlie Kube, MA,MS