Little People, Big Feelings: 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Regulate Emotions

By Katie Bangert
October 15, 2019

Try these 5 tips to coach your kids as they learn to manage complex feelings.

Little girl screaming out of frustration

Does this scene sound familiar?

You hand your little one their favorite snack. They stare back as if you handed them a package of worms. Their face slowly contorting, the howls of protest quickly follow. The next five minutes are filled with intense crying, and you play a Jeopardy guessing game until you finally put together they wanted the snack with the green packaging.  

They may be little people, but their feelings are BIG.

Just like reading, the ability to process and handle emotions happens at different times for each child. Depending on your child’s personality, they may develop these skills naturally or they may need a little help and coaching to manage their emotions.

To successfully navigate elementary school, kids need to be able to handle the disappointment of not getting called on, waiting their turn in line, and feeling left out on the playground.  Many older kids struggle with stopping a video game to come to dinner, going to school in the morning when they are tired, or finishing a difficult homework assignment.

Finding ways to manage strong emotions is an important skill that will be needed for their entire life!

When we think about strong emotions less as a behavior issue and more as a skill to be learned, it’s easier to provide a warm, responsive environment. You are their safe place where they can learn and grow!

We’ve put together 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Regulate Emotions. These tips will help you coach your kids as they’re learning to manage complex feelings.

5 Ways to Help Your Kids Regulate Emotions

1. Give Them Words

Your little one’s brain is changing and growing so much during the early years, often their vocabulary struggles to keep up. They are navigating social situations and learning how to appropriately respond, oftentimes without the words to do so. It’s overwhelming when a friend takes a toy and they have not developed the language skills to say, “Hey, that wasn’t nice. I want my toy back.” 

These little people want to be understood, and lacking the words to do so, they throw fits, cry, scream, and hit. What they really want to tell you about a canceled a playdate is, “I’m really disappointed we don’t get to go on this amazing, fun activity that I had been looking forward to all day.” In little person language this looks like a puddle of crying on the floor with a few foot stomps for good measure.

One of the best things you can do is give your child the words.

Next time you see a situation requiring them to process big feelings, get down on their level. Tell them, “I see you’re feeling (angry, sad, scared, happy etc.). That must be really frustrating.”

Giving these big emotions a name is incredibly helpful and reassuring. It might not change the fact that you’re still not going on the playdate, but it lets them know you hear them and you care. It also reminds them you are their safe place.

An easy way to help your child learn their emotions is to make a card for them with face emotions and place it on your refrigerator. Here’s a link for a free printable one.

Talk about these emotions during your day. Explain what they may look like in the moment. Ask them to identify how they’re feeling. As they begin to put words to their feelings, the emotional outbursts will lessen.

Veteran mom tip – this isn’t just for little ones! Begin this practice now and it will help you all the way into teen years as you provide emotional support to your growing kids.

2. Sensory Bottles

Sensory bottles are a favorite for when a child is feeling overwhelmed. Hand them a bottle to shake and have them watch the bubbles slowly float around. These mesmerizing and soothing movements help regulate emotions and breathing.

The best part is this is such a fun, easy project to do with your child! By involving them in the process of making their own “calming bottle” you will also have the opportunity to chat through how they can use the bottle when they are upset or need something to help them calm down.

There are hundreds of different recipes available online, but my favorite three simple ingredients: baby oil, water and food coloring. Fill an empty clear water bottle with 90% baby oil. In a separate bowl, mix water and a few drops of food coloring, then add the mixture to the water bottle. Hot glue the lid closed, and you’re done!

This makes a lava lamp-type sensory bottle where your child can turn over or shake the solution to watch the bubbles move. Other popular concoctions add glitter or “I Spy” objects.

3. Blow Bubbles

A well-meaning piece of advice often given to children during an emotional outburst is to “take a deep breath.” Unfortunately, these are little people, and this is a difficult concept. Deep breathing involves sucking in air, holding, and calmly releasing. This is hardly possible in a good moment, let alone in the throes of a tantrum. Ask a preschooler to take a deep breath and you will see exactly what I mean. It sounds a bit more like hyperventilation than centered meditation.

This is where you pull out your magic bag with a Mary Poppins-worthy trick. Break out your bubble wand and calmly ask your child to blow bubbles. This task takes the focus off the breathing, which they will naturally do to blow a bubble, and visually transfers it to an object. As the bubbles float into the air, you can even help center them by saying, “See, your – sadness, anger etc. – is floating away just like the bubbles.”

We love this bubble wand for extra large bubbles.

4. Create a “Calming Corner”

We all need a place where we can go when emotions get high. As adults, with the freedom to go where we want, we often take a walk, take a drive, or call a friend for support. A calming corner essentially gives a child the space to process in a safe, supervised environment.

To make an inviting “Calming Corner” find a quiet place in your home. Add a cozy bean bag or chair and a basket of sensory toys. Some suggestions that little ones enjoy are:

Involve them in the process of creating this space. Remember, this is their space! Have them pick a few of their favorite toys or stuffed animals, too.

As you are arranging the space with your child, walk them through this is a place where they can come when they need a break or are feeling upset.

The next time your child has a strong emotional outburst, gently suggest they go to the “Calming Corner” for a few minutes. The goal is to coach your child to recognize when they are feeling overwhelmed by their emotions and go there by themselves.

One thing to note is this is not a time out and they should not be sent there as a punishment. This is an important distinction because you are creating a safe place where they can take a minute away from a difficult situation or feelings and re-focus.

5. Keep Calm and Carry On

Keeping calm seems like such an obvious thing during an emotional outburst, but after a long, exhausting day it can be really hard.

In my own family, those times when my husband or I lost our cool or took an authoritarian perspective, the situation went from a 5 to a 10 instantly. We learned if we stayed calm it might not immediately diffuse the situation, but it allowed it not to escalate further.

Staying calm allows your child the freedom to work through their emotions and rely on YOU to help them. By not taking their actions personally (or feeling like a bad parent because your child head butts you in JoAnn’s), you’re better equipped to coach them on an appropriate response.

This takes practice and a lot of patience.

Walk yourself through situations that tend to repeat themselves in your child’s day. Develop a script. Practice being calm.

One thing to note. Sometimes, no matter how calm you stay, they’re still going to have an emotional outburst. One of my best used lines is, “I love you very much. It looks like you need a few minutes to work through your frustration. I’ll be in the other room whenever you’re ready.”

Veteran mom tip – Learn this game face now and you will be a pro by the time they hit the teenage years. They may not throw a tantrum on the floor, but they will bait you for a reaction.

Which tip did you use? We’d love to hear your story!

About the Author

Katie Bangert

Katie Bangert is a wife, mother, unapologetic book lover and nature enthusiast. Published in five Chicken Soup for the Soul books, she somehow turned a marketing degree into a passion for writing and children’s education. She hopes to inspire her readers to find the blessings hiding within the everyday.

You may enjoy these other articles by Katie:

Leave a Comment

Your comments make our day. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 replies