Helping children deal with feelings is part of being a parent, and it’s not easy. It’s important to work on teaching healthy coping skills for kids from toddlerhood and beyond
Healthy Coping Skills for Kids With Big Emotions
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The part of our brain that makes us rational thinkers, regulates emotions, helps us think before acting and make good decisions is not fully developed until we reach our mid-twenties. This is our prefrontal cortex.
The part of our brain that controls our strong emotions, however, is fully developed from birth. This is the amygdala.
This is why telling a young child “No” often results in a tantrum.
They are upset – and fully capable of feeling upset. But, they aren’t capable of thinking before they react, making decisions, rationalizing, or regulating those emotions.
Actually, they probably don’t even know what it is they’re feeling. Their fight or flight instincts kick in with minimal provocation, and you can’t get through to them anymore.
When you’re teaching coping skills to kids it’s important to remember when they’re struggling that they are doing the best they can with the brain they have.
Coping Skills for Kids
There is always a direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.
When kids feel right, they will behave right. How do we make them feel right? By accepting and helping them deal with their feelings. (Source – Adele Faber)
For kids to learn healthy coping skills, they need to know how to identify their feelings. There are some ways you can help them develop this skill.
1. Listen With Full Attention
First of all, if you plan on helping children deal with feelings you need to listen with full attention and do not half-listen.
It can be really discouraging if you’re trying to talk to someone and their attention is on something else – like their phones, TV, another task.
Children find it much easier to talk about their problems and feelings with a parent who is fully listening. Turn and look at your child, get down on their level and shut out any distractions. If you need to, find a quiet place.
You don’t always need to say something either. Sometimes, just someone to listen sympathetically is all a child needs.
Refrain from questioning, blaming, or advising your child during this time. They want someone to listen.
Example: Your child says “I don’t like my teacher, he always keeps me in at recess”, do not say things like “That’s because you never pass your homework in on time.”
You don’t want your child to feel upset and blamed or they may not want to open up to you again.
Plus, when given the chance you would be surprised how well kids can problem solve on their own if you listen and give them a chance.
This leads to point #2…
2. Acknowledge With Words
This means making it clear to your child that you are listening to their story/problem by sayings things like “ohhh” or “I see”, or repeating a small part of what they said back to show you’ve listened and understood (reflective listening).
If you listen to your child with a compassionate attitude and acknowledge them without taking over the conversation you will give your child the opportunity to explore their own thoughts and feelings.
This is extremely important for developing coping skills.
3. Give The Feeling a Name
We often try to urge our children’s bad feelings away. This is because we don’t want our kids to feel these things – we want them to be happy.
So, if your child’s favorite toy breaks and they are crying you may say “don’t cry, it’s only a toy”. But, even if we are trying to be nice and comforting, this almost always makes things worse.
It’s not only a toy to them, and now they are feeling frustrated or misunderstood, too.
The best thing you can do is name the feeling and then validate that feeling.
“You’re feeling sad and that makes sense because your favorite toy is broken”
Often times children feel intense emotions but don’t know what they are. Feelings are a very abstract concept that everyone experiences uniquely and can be hard for kids to understand.
A child hearing a name for what they are feeling can be comforting. It also helps children, over time, learn to recognize their own emotions and express them using words instead of reactions.
Validating the feeling shows your child that it’s okay to feel the way they do. We can’t always make everything better for our kids – but we can teach them to tolerate those emotions until they pass.
Recently the kids and I went to the local pool, but when we arrived we were told the pool was at capacity and we couldn’t go in. As you can imagine – this was incredibly frustrating for two young children.
When big emotions take over, flight or fight instinct kicks in, and all of a sudden your child is a screaming puddle on the floor.
Instead of trying to tell my kids it wasn’t a big deal and saying things like “don’t cry, I will bring you back tomorrow” or even getting angry about their behavior in public, I made sure to name what they were feeling.
I said “This is so disappointing. This really doesn’t feel fair, does it?” I remained sympathetic throughout the trip home as well. I also told them “I’m feeling upset too becauseI really wanted to swim with you today.”
The kids did struggle with their feelings but I could tell they were trying their best to understand and stay in control. It definitely helped them calm down knowing that I felt upset too but was staying calm.
4. Talk About The Feelings of Others
Talking with your child about how other people are feeling and helping them recognize the emotions of others can help them understand their own feelings.
If you and your child are out and hear a baby crying, ask them “why do you think that baby is crying”. This will encourage them to think about what the baby may be feeling.
Or, if you’re watching TV and someone is yelling, or cheering, or having a big conflict you can talk to your child about this. Ask them how they think the characters are feeling.
It’s difficult for children to understand that other people have emotions different from their own. Talking about others can help improve your child’s awareness of themselves and others.
Make sure you also talk about your feelings with your child. You can help them learn how their actions affect others’ feelings around them. Tell your child things like “It makes me feel so happy to see you clean your room” or “Looking at your artwork makes me feel proud”.
Express negative feelings to them as well, “I feel so disappointed when you hit your brother.” or “When I get hurt it makes me feel sad, too. Can I give you a hug?”
“I heard your feelings” emotional communication cards can help you present different emotional situations to your child.
This can improve empathy and help your child learn to analyze the emotional dynamics of different social interactions which are important when helping children deal with feelings.
5. Grant Their Wishes in Fantasy
This might sound strange at first, and when I first read this in Adele Faber’s book, I kind of raised my brow – but it seriously works! It’s one of my favorite tips in her book.
So when your child is upset because they can’t have something, imagine aloud giving them what they want in an extravagant, funny way.
Logical explanations don’t matter to kids when they’re upset. Remember, that part of their brain isn’t working.
They don’t care that you ran out of their favorite snack, or that they can’t have a birthday party every day.
It actually works almost every time my child wants something they can’t have. Plus, when you’re helping children deal with feelings, it can be useful to add a little humor to the situation.
This is a comic directly from How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.
This perfectly explains what it means to grant a child their wishes in fantasy.
Tools to Help Children Deal With Feelings
If your child struggles with understanding and controlling their emotions, there are tons of tools and resources to help them gain more emotional understanding and to teach coping skills.
Remember, everything a child is feeling in a meltdown – we feel those things too and it’s normal. They just don’t have any coping skills to deal with those feelings in an appropriate way so it’s harder for kids to calm down.
As the adult, the onus is on you to teach those coping skills to your kids.
6. Books About Feelings
There are tons of children’s books out there for helping children deal with feelings. These are some of my personal favorites:
- How to Take the Grrrr Out of Anger – This one is great for older kids/teens
- Stress Can Really Get On your NERVES
- What to Do When it’s Not Fair
- The Way I Feel
- The Feelings Book (This is a board book, appropriate for young children)
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
- Calm Down Time (great for toddlers)
Visuals are an amazing tool to use for anything with kids. Children struggle with remembering verbal instructions and processing auditory information into their memory.
But a visual is an excellent tool to trigger their memory and help them learn.
There are plenty of visual tools you can use when helping children deal with feelings. If your child has trouble expressing themselves, being able to point to a visual that shows what they are feeling may be much easier.
Also, the Feelings and Needs Picture Card Kit is a wonderful visual resource. This kit teaches children and parents to work together through tough feelings and behaviors.
Using it at a young age helps teach self-awareness. It can be used for feelings and behaviors like kicking, biting, hitting, etc. It’s also portable so you can use it on-the-go.
8. Zones of Regulation
Zones of Regulation is a tool for helping children regulate their emotions by recognizing what is going on in their bodies and teaching them appropriate coping skills.
Kids learn skills in consciously regulating their actions, which in turn leads to increased control and problem-solving abilities.
It explains how kids can be in different states, called zones, each represented by a different color. Kids also learn how to stay in a zone or move from one to another.
This includes calming techniques, cognitive strategies, and sensory supports so they will have a toolbox of methods to use to move between zones.
The Zones of Regulation also helps kids know how to read others’ facial expressions and recognize a broader range of emotions, perspective about how others see and react to their behavior, insight into events that trigger their less regulated states, and when and how to use tools and problem-solving skills.
The book has 18 lessons, and to reinforce the concepts being taught, each lesson includes questions to discuss and instructions for one or more learning activities. Many lessons offer extension activities and ways to adapt the activity for the individual child’s needs.
The book includes worksheets, other handouts, and visuals to display and share. It also comes with a USB containing all the printable material so you can easily access it and print off copies. The curriculum is designed to be taught by anyone who works with children who struggle with self-regulation (from teachers – to parents!).
You can find some Zones of Regulation activities and printables here.
Download one of the free feelings check-in sheets. This includes two pages, one with a boy and one with a girl. These can be printed off and your child can circle the face that best matches their feelings.
A lot of children struggle with expressing their feelings verbally but are able to communicate with visuals.Feelings Check-In
10. Teach How Different Feelings Make Their Body Feel
There is a physiological response to every emotion we experience. Helping your child make the connection between these physiological responses and the emotions they are caused by is key when teaching coping skills to kids.
Use this printable body map to help your child learn what happens to their bodies in different emotional states. Get them to color in the different parts of their body that they can feel reacting.
This can help you identify their emotions and also help them recognize patterns and use those patterns to recognize emotions in the future.Mapping Feelings
Use a Calm Down Kit
Calm down kits contain several tools or quiet activities that your child enjoys.
This kit should be available for your child to use to take a short break when they need to calm down.
Learning to control emotions, self-regulate, and practice appropriate coping skills is a long journey for kids. This is not something that can be taught overnight, or in a week or a month.
Being conscious of these tips, and using them in your daily life will grow your child’s emotional self-awareness over time.