How to Help Kids Manage their Emotions

If you’re a parent or someone, who spends time with children, then you’ve experienced kids and their big emotions. Maybe your child comes to you upset about something and before you know it, the situation has rocketed to a full-blown tantrum or even worse a meltdown. When this happens, it leaves both kids and adults drained and confused. As adults, we wonder why kids are acting this way and how the situation escalated so quickly.

While at times it may be because kids are hungry, thirsty or overtired (which genuinely intensifies their feelings), it often has to do with our negative reactions to their emotions.

That’s why in this post, I touch on how to help kids manage their emotions by managing our reactions. By helping kids understand their feelings and express them in safe and healthy ways, we not only minimize emotional outbursts, but can also set kids up for a lifetime of emotional success.

Kids and Their Feelings

A feeling can be defined as an emotional state or reaction. I like to think of feelings as the signposts of the body. In the same way signposts provide information about our surroundings so we can navigate the road, our feelings provide us with information about our physical and mental state so we can navigate daily situations.

For example, when we feel tired, we may need to rest, hydrate or have a snack. If we feel frustrated while working, we may need to go on a walk or speak about our frustration with a colleague before we are ready to find a solution.

But how did we learn to pinpoint what we are feeling and how to address it? Who taught us to manage our emotions and express them in constructive and safe ways?

This is when our guidance and interactions with kids is so very important. Kids learn about their feelings mainly by the way we behave and what we model.

Kids like us have big feelings. In a given day, they may feel happy, excited, tired, angry, shy or afraid. Unlike us, they don’t always know what they are feeling and how to express those feelings in acceptable ways.

It’s our job to help kids understand that different feelings are a part of life and no matter how bad, are temporary. With that being said, it’s also our job to help kids understand that while all feelings are acceptable, not all behaviors are.

Before sharing tips on how to help kids manage their emotions, it’s important to touch on the mistakes we make when kids share their feelings with us.

Unhelpful Adult Behaviors

When kids come to us with their big feelings or negative emotions, we have a tendency to react with certain unhelpful behaviors.

In “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk”, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish explain the behaviors we resort to when kids express their feelings (especially negative feelings). On a side note, I highly recommend reading this book to learn how to better communicate with kids of every age (and adults too!).

While reading these, take a moment to think if you have experienced these behaviors firsthand either on the giving or receiving end.

  • Deny their feelings: “Oh it isn’t that bad. You’re overreacting.”

  • Give a philosophical response: “That’s life. We don’t always get what we want.”

  • Give advice: “What I think you should do is…”

  • Question their actions and their feelings: “Why did you do that? Why did you listen to him?”

  • Defend the other side: “She probably had a good reason to react that way.”

  • Show pity: “Oh poor thing!”

  • Provide amateur psychoanalysis: “The real reason you are so upset is…”

When we act in these ways, we send the message to kids that their feelings aren’t important. Instead of identifying their feelings and learning healthy ways to express them, kids instead learn that certain feelings are bad. This usually ends with kids escalating their behavior with tantrums and meltdowns (typically out of frustration) or by pulling away completely and not sharing their feelings with us at all (why would they want to?).

So what can we do instead?

Below, I share three simple steps to help kids understand their emotions, as well as express them in healthy ways.

How to Help Kids Manage their Emotions

Helping kids manage their emotions really requires us adults to "zip it", listen and practice empathy. I have tweaked the approach that Faber and Mazlish recommend so that we not only help kids recognize their feelings, but also give them tools to manage those feelings.

Listen and Acknowledge Feelings

When children express their feelings, it’s important to make space to listen. By doing this, we send kids the message that, “I hear you and acknowledge you regardless of your feelings being positive or negative.” This is an important point because children need to feel loved and accepted regardless of their emotional state. Remember all feelings are okay; There are no bad feelings just unacceptable behaviors.

Faber and Mazlish recommend acknowledging feelings with a word like, “I see” or “Hmm.” You can also convey empathy through your body language be it, by nodding your head or showing understanding with your eyes. Actively listening means  that you're making eye contact.

It’s usually at this point that we typically resort to one of the seven behavioral mistakes putting our feelings and emotions above those of our children. If you catch yourself doing this, STOP and LISTEN. It can take practice if you aren’t used to practicing empathy and listening. Remember this moment isn’t about you.

What’s so amazing is that if we do stop, listen, acknowledge feelings and empathize, kids will often resolve their feelings on their own. Sometimes all it takes is a listening ear.

Help Kids Identify Feelings

Other times children aren’t quite sure what they are feeling, so it can be helpful to “give their feelings a name.” Faber and Mazlish recommend doing this by saying, “That sounds…” and name the appropriate feeling like, “That sounds frustrating.”

While it’s important to help kids identify their feelings, we need to make sure that we are not telling kids how they feel or assuming how they feel. I have done this myself and actually been corrected by kids, “No Ms. Sandra, I don’t feel sad, I feel upset.” Fair enough, I don't like when someone assumes how I’m feeling either.

To help kids identify feelings, I recommend reading books like “Lots of Feelings” by Shelley Rotner. It’s a great way to discuss feelings during those moments that children are happy and calm. As children learn to identify how others are feeling and what emotions they are showing, it becomes easier for them to identify their own feelings and emotions. They also really enjoy seeing photos of real kids expressing their feelings.

Suggest Safe Ways Kids Can Express Feelings

After acknowledging feelings and helping kids identify them, we can suggest safe ways for kids to express their feelings.

We can guide kids and act as a bridge to help them from feeling negative to finding solutions and activities that help them feel better.

For example, when kids arrived to school feeling sad or unsettled, I would listen and acknowledge how they were feeling, give them a hug or show them affection (if wanted) and then suggest an activity that they may enjoy. Perhaps they wanted to draw a picture for their parents or to relax in the book corner for a little. After some practice, young kids would naturally find those activities that would help them address their feelings in a constructive way.

It’s truly amazing to see how acknowledging kids’ feelings and giving them tools will allow them to manage their emotions solo. I especially love supporting kids with various tools that empower them to proactively address their feelings. They no longer feel like victims to their emotions (they start to understand that feelings really are temporary) and what was once frustration is replaced with action.

Powerful stuff!

How do you help your kids manage their emotions? I would love to hear from you!

In my next post, I share some activities that adults can teach kids to help them manage their emotions and express their feelings.

Keep well, S