This guest post was written by Sanya Pelini, who holds a Ph.D. in educational research. She transforms research into practical tools and resources on her blog Raising Independent Kids. She is the author of the e-book Managing Your Child’s Anger and Anxiety. A Practical Toolkit for Ages 3 to 8.
Evidence suggests that children who learn to understand what triggers their strong emotions, such as anxiety and anger, can more effectively respond to those emotions and stay accountable to themselves. They are also more likely to be happier and successful in life.
We can teach them to face their emotions head on using a toolkit they can refer to when they need help. This will enable them to manage those emotions effectively in childhood years and beyond. Although this does not guarantee that you will get rid of all the meltdowns, it will give your children the tools they need to communicate more effectively and reduce the frequency and intensity of anxious or disruptive behavior.
Teaching children to manage and respond appropriately to strong emotions is difficult and takes time. Practice makes perfect, so please be patient. Some strategies will work better than others depending on your specific situation, so choose those that are most in line with your child’s personality. There are some innovative ways to work with your kids to manage their emotions depending on what phase they are experiencing.
Phase 1: Help Your Child Identify Emotions
Young children are not always able to differentiate between various emotions. Educating them about emotions is the first step in helping them understand what they are feeling so that they can respond to them in appropriate ways. Explain that addressing strong emotions appropriately requires them to be aware of those emotions first. Introduce your children to different emotions when they are calm rather than when they are in the middle of a meltdown or panic attack.
One activity you can try with your kids to help them learn to identify emotions is the emotions detective game:
- Choose an appropriate place to observe people.
- Give your children an emotions detective worksheet–cards or pictures portraying different emotions.
- Ask your children to look for people with the emotions displayed on the cards.
- To validate the response, ask your children what makes them think the emotions expressed correspond to what is displayed on the worksheet. For example, is the person crying, shouting, smiling, laughing, frowning, etc?
- Relate the feeling to your children by asking when they felt that way and what they did.
- You can also ask your children to make up a story about the people they observed to explain why they felt the way they did. Role playing is a powerful tool to teach about emotions.
Phase 2: Help Your Child Understand What Triggers Strong Emotions
One of the most effective ways to teach your children to manage strong emotions is to help them identify the triggers so they can manage those triggers before they get out of hand. Depending on their age, different activities can help them learn to identify their triggers. For example, older children can use an emotions diary to learn what makes them feel this way.
- Give your children a diary and ask them to jot down the things that make them feel anxious or angry each day.
- Offer guidance by proposing what they should pay attention to, such as:
- Exactly what happened?
- How did you feel?
- Rate your anger/anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10.
- How did your body feel (headache, stomachache, nervous, sweaty palms, heart racing)?
- What did you do?
- Decide together the number of days your children should write down their anger or anxiety feelings.
- When the period has elapsed, ask them to go through the diary and identify the most frequent triggers. Offer your support.
- Ask them to write down what triggers their emotions based on what they identified.
Phase 3: Help Your Child Identify Ways To Respond To Anger And Anxiety
Anger and anxiety are normal human reactions that can even be beneficial at times. Addressing these emotions is not about suppressing them; it is about teaching your children how to manage them effectively. Let your children choose their own calm-down strategy. If they are having trouble choosing a strategy, do not hesitate to propose an option that you think may work.
A calm-down jar is an effective tool that can help your children learn to manage their emotions by themselves. The premise is to write down as many coping strategies you can think of and place them in a jar that they can refer to when they need guidance. Work with your children to brainstorm strategies that they feel are appropriate and acceptable activities for them. Keep the jar in an easily accessible spot, such as in their bedroom or playroom.
An effective jar should have:
- Visually calming activities: sand-timer, sensory jar, indoor fountain, pictures of nature
- Activities to unwind: Blow bubbles, blow up a balloon, color a mandala, read a book, listen to music
- Activities to comfort: Favorite toys, hugs, cozy blanket
- Activities to focus attention elsewhere: Painting, dot-to-dot pictures, whistling
- Physical activities to release tension: jumping rope, bouncing on a trampoline, push against a wall
- Things to hold or squeeze: Stress balls, slime, handkerchief
- Oral sensory activities: chew gum, apples, grapes
What activities have you used to talk to your child about emotions?