How to Help Kids Recognize and Regulate Emotions

Kids aren’t born with an understanding of what emotions mean – they’re as much at the mercy of their joy and anger and sadness as you are.

Child emotions

Image: Flickr/Tuckett

Last week we wrote about how to make a safe space for your child’s emotions, leaving it up to your child whether to use this space. This week, we respect the fact that in addition to helping your child express raw emotions it can be our job as parents and professionals to help kids harness and even transform their emotions. It’s so hard to watch our kids be marionettes to their emotions, pulled one way and then the other, with no control over what they say and do. Remember, kids aren’t born with an understanding of what these emotions mean – they’re as much at the mercy of their joy and anger and sadness as you are. Here’s a strategy I’ve used with kids to help them take the reins of their own feelings.

1. Recognize Emotions

You may immediately recognize when you’re angry but kids don’t. They don’t have that observer, sitting separate from the visceral experience of their body, to watch and name what’s going on. The first step in helping kids recognize their emotions is modeling your own. You might say something like, “I just got home from a long day at work and am feeling frustrated about my boss.” Name where in your body you feel this emotion. You might say something like, “I’m feeling sad today and I can feel it in my shoulders.” Then help your child name the feelings in his or her body. Use language like, “I notice your fists are clenched and your jaw is tight – I wonder if you’re feeling angry?” Try to use “I wonder” language so that you don’t force feelings on your child.

Child in the rain

Image: Flickr/AdriaanC

2. Recognize the Size of Emotions

On a scale of 1-10, any emotion in the 5-10 range is uncomfortable, even joy. This means that even more important than naming a feeling (which can be complex and challenging) is recognizing how “big” it is. I’ve used a handful of tools to help kids name the size of their emotions. With older kids, you might have them name the size of their emotion from 1-10. Or you can use thumbs up, middle or down, like turning up a dial. Or you can use green, yellow and red to name the range. With very young kids, I’ve had success naming the size of emotions with animals like “turtle, bunny and dragon.”  Whatever the language you use, try to keep it consistent. Try to notice when your child is feeling many emotions at many levels and offer many opportunities to practice.

3. Regulate Emotions

The goal is help a child be able to catch their emotions before the emotion gets too large, and to use tools in their toolbox to keep the emotion in the 0-5 range. The emotional regulation toolbox is different for every child. For some it will be drawing, or reading, or going for a walk, or doing jumping jacks, or talking, or a minute alone, or working with thinking putty. It may take experimentation to find the tools that work for your child. At first, you will have to say, “I notice that you’re starting to feel X. Do you want to try Y?” Hopefully your child will eventually come to recognize the signs of their emotions ramping up and fill in these blanks themselves with a script along the lines of “I feel [blank]. I need to [blank].”

As you work through these steps with your child, remember that emotions are contagious. When your child’s emotions are in the 5-10 range, it’s easy to let your emotions escalate, too! And at that point, the rational brain shuts off. Your child can’t rationalize causes and consequences and you can’t logically design them until emotions are back in the 0-5 range. When your emotions escalate, first forgive yourself. It’s as hard for you as it is for your child! Then consider finding a way to step away. Just as you’re supposed to apply your own oxygen mask first on an airplane, work to regulate your own emotions before trying to help your child regulate his or hers. This can look like tag-teaming with a partner or it can man literally closing yourself in a bathroom so that you have 10 seconds to breathe before engaging.