Helping Children Manage Their Feelings
A basic method to improve a child's ability to label, measure, communicate about, understand, and cope with feelings
By Mark Gardner, LCSW
Episodes of intense negative feelings are among the most challenging situations for young children and their parents. Anger can escalate into temper tantrums. Excessive worrying or fear can limit a child's ability to try new behaviors or separate from parents when going to school. Frequent episodes of sadness can sap a child's self esteem. A child's ability to label emotions and self-soothe or calm herself when negative feelings arise is crucial for preventing these more serious circumstances. Cultivating these skills involves providing your child with tools to understand, communicate about and reduce these detrimental feelings.
Children and parents benefit from having multiple ways to address difficult emotions. Many times, simple redirection will extinguish a brewing outburst. Other times, setting limits on a child's out-of-control behavior is required.
The method outlined in this article is best suited to situations when you have the time to engage your child in a longer dialogue and your child responds to your initial overtures to talk about his feelings. If your child is very upset and unable to converse or if talking would cause escalation, other methods should be employed.
This method focuses on helping your child control emotions via self-monitoring and self-calming skills. Self-monitoring involves being aware of what our minds and bodies are experiencing and being able to communicate about these experiences. Skills involved are: 1) identifying feelings; 2) labeling feelings; and 3) measuring how big or intense the feelings are. Self-calming/soothing skills involve developing behaviors that reduce the intensity of these problematic feelings.
This four-step technique can be used with mild, moderate and intense instances of feelings. When used regularly with less intense feelings you can prevent more serious escalation.
Step one: Help your child label their feelings
First, help your child figure out all the different feelings he's having. Usually, there's a clear primary feeling. However, many times, there are additional secondary feelings also in play. For example, if a brother or sister just took his toy away, he may be both angry at the offense and sad that his sister would treat him this way.
If, initially he can't find the words, take a best guess and label them for him. Alternately, one can use a feelings chart. This allows your child to point to the different feelings he may have. You then can provide the words for the feelings. Finally, convey your empathy for how difficult his situation is.
Here's an example of how a typical situation involving anger could go: "Wow, you look really upset. How are you feeling?" If you don't get a response, you could say, "Your face is all red and you're stomping your feet. You look angry. Is that right?" After an affirmative response, then say, "I'm really sorry to see you so angry. It's really hard when we feel that way...I was also thinking you may be sad, too, because you can't play with that toy. Is that right?"
In this first step, there are a few elements supporting self-calming. First, you are interrupting escalation by diverting attention away from the causes of the intense emotion. Second, for the younger child, labeling feelings gives them words for their experience. Later, he can "use his words" to solve problems, rather than act out. Third, by communicating your understanding of his feelings, he gains you as an ally. He'll know that you are able to understand him or her.
Step two: Measure how big the feelings are
Measuring feelings is crucial for knowing how big of a job you and your child will have to get back to equilibrium. It will provide clarity on the seriousness and severity of a situation. And, like labeling, it helps with the process of using language to address our feelings: when we can name or have an idea about a feeling, we are better able to control it. Quantifying also informs the strategies used in calming down – the next step, as well as how effective calming efforts are.
There are several ways to measure feelings, depending on the situation and the age of your child:
- "Show me with your hands" – close together for a little, far apart for a lot? (great for three- and four-year olds)
- Concrete (something your child can immediately feel or see): as big as a Lego or as big as this room?
- Metaphor: As big as a mouse or an elephant?
- Feelings chart with a number line
- Yellow, orange or red colored index cards that a child can pick up and show you
- Rating solely by number (best for older children); 1-10 or 1-100
This step also contributes to interrupting and redirecting your child's emotional response. You and your child will learn which situations cause certain emotional reactions.
Step three: Implement specific self-calming behaviors
In many cases, just the process of labeling and quantifying your child's feelings will reduce significantly how badly she's feeling. If not, you'll want to utilize this step.
There are many techniques that can be used. Most will depend on your child, the circumstances, and your experience with her. It helps to have a range of different activities that may be effective. If possible, talk to your child when she is calm and brainstorm different ideas. So they can be easily accessed, write them down on a chart or use pictures that depict them. They can be grouped to address different intensities of negative feelings, e.g., small, medium or large: A hug could be enough for a minor disappointment; some quiet time in one's room may mitigate a moderate let down; or a special, all-day series of fun times with mom or dad may alleviate a huge failure.
Listed below are just a few ideas of behaviors that could be helpful. A future article will address additional strategies.
- Exercise, like running around, jumping up and down
- Counting to ten
- Taking deep breaths
- Getting hugs or pats on the back
- Going to a quiet place
- Listening to music
- Imagining a favorite place
- Squeezing hands and arms, then releasing
- Leaving the place where we're angry
- Getting away from the person/people with whom we're angry
- "Putting your brakes on" – child holds or pushes his hands together to keep them from hitting someone or breaking something
Step four: Measure the feelings again and try additional coping strategies, if needed
Measuring again determines whether or not you've made progress on self soothing. A child may look calmer but report the same or similar intensity of feeling. If so, try additional calming strategies and then repeat the measuring. Once calm, one can engage in a broader discussion with your child about other aspects of the situation that may have contributed to his emotional reaction. This step will also, over time, help you learn the effectiveness of particular self-calming strategies for specific situations.
Empowering you and your child with multiple strategies to address negative feelings is crucial to their success in navigating life's ups and downs. Regular use of the methods presented in this article, when appropriate, will greatly enhance your child's understanding of his feelings, increase his ability to communicate about them, and develop ways to calm down.
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