Emotional Regulation (Tips for helping kids cope)

“YaYa (Riley) wouldn’t share the tent and it HURT MY FEELINGS!”  Sound familiar?  Toddlers and preschoolers haven’t quite figured out how to manage their emotions, and they generally aren’t known for their impulse control.  The result tends to be excessive tears over a small bump or very hurt feelings over a minor disagreement…and just about everything in between.  All kids are different, though, so some might not react as strongly in the face of emotional events.  While Riley falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, Liam is just an emotional kid.  He gets really, really excited about fun stuff, and very, very sad when things don’t go his way.  He’s also 2 ½ and not yet able to regulate his emotions.

If you have a preschooler on your hands who seems to bounce off the walls at the mention of a trip to Grandma’s or who still throws fairly heated tantrums when things don’t go her way, you likely have a child who experiences “emotional intensity”.  Relax; it’s not a diagnosis.  It just means that your child experiences emotions (everything from excitement to happiness to sadness to anger) with great intensity and has a hard time regulating those emotions.  In short, an emotionally intense child is easily overwhelmed by his feelings.

The most important thing you  can do to help your preschooler manage his emotions is to be supportive as he learns to cope.  What is relaxing to one child might not be to another, and sometimes it takes some trial and error to help your child figure out what will work for him.  It’s important to remember that preschool is a time of rapid cognitive, physical, and emotional growth.  Growing up his hard work.

When feelings become overwhelming for Riley or Liam they will say, “I’m just feeling small today Mommy”.  This is my cue that they need extra cuddles, stories, and time on my lap.  It’s a big world out there for a preschooler, it’s ok to feel small and regress a bit at times.  In fact, allowing your child to feel small shows him that all feelings are ok and that you are there to help him manage those feelings.

Below are some tips to help you help your child regulate his emotions:

1.   Stay calm:  Believe me, I know how frustrating it can be when you’re trying to get everyone out the door on time and one melts down because his shoes aren’t right.  Staying calm during stressful moments shows your child that you can help him through this moment, and that the problem isn’t too big to be fixed.  Preschoolers are literal thinkers and fond of saying things like, “it’s ruined” or “it’s all wrong”.  It’s up to you to take a few deep breaths and help problem solve in the moment.  In doing this, you are modeling coping strategies for your kids.

2.   Validate:  Sometimes a stubbed toe is very painful, and sometimes it’s just emotionally overwhelming because it wasn’t what was expected.  Validating both the physical pain and the emotional reaction helps your child understand that it’s ok to feel that way.  Mastery of emotional regulation doesn’t really happen until the late teens (although ask parents of some teens and they might say they’re still waiting on that one).  Right now, kids just need to know that a stubbed toe is an upsetting event and that you understand the feeling.  Many kids will turn it around and get right back down to business after having their feelings validated.

3.   Label:  When your mom is a psychotherapist, you learn to verbalize your feelings early (like it or not).  But for most preschoolers, finding the words to describe their feelings is a difficult task.  People often say to young kids, “use your words”.  The problem is that they only have so many words to use.  Use feelings words throughout the day.  Use happy, sad, angry, frustrated, worried, overwhelmed, etc.  Use them to label your child’s feelings, and use them to label your own.  Sometimes parents shy away from using big words, like “overwhelmed”, for fear that children won’t understand them.  With a simple explanation, my 2 ½ year old knows to say, “I feel overwhelmed” when his feelings are too big for him to handle.  It won’t make the crying any less intense right now, but it will help your child understand what he’s going through.

4.   Food & quiet time:  Emotionally intense kids tend to be more affected by hunger and exhaustion than kids who don’t react as strongly to emotional events.  However, hunger and exhaustion are common triggers of tantrums as well.  Provide a light snack and a calming activity (puzzles, drawing, and reading are always good) to help your relax in the moment.  Explain to your child that sometimes our bodies just need extra food or a little rest to calm down.  Riley is now able to identify reading on the couch as her calming activity, while Liam can be heard saying, “I’m just calming down with my puzzles” when he gets overwhelmed.

5.   Cognitive restructuring:  You don’t have to study up on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for this one.  Replacing a negative thought with a positive one is the basic idea here.  When Riley declares, “my picture is RUINED!” I often reply, “do you think we can fix it with tape?”  Most of the time, providing a positive alternative helps (“we can fix it!”).  Sometimes it’s tape, other times it’s starting fresh.  Either way, teaching your child to replace a negative thought with a positive one is great life skill.  It teaches her that solutions exist, and that your first reaction is not always the best reaction.

6.   Self-talk:  As kids, we used to laugh when we would overhear our mom talking to herself.  It seemed really funny at the time.  It was years later that I realized she was really just using another CBT technique (although she didn’t know it), “self-talk”.  Self-talk enables a child to stay calm and talk his way through a difficult or upsetting situation.  For example, my kids struggle when Sean leaves for work because they know they won’t see him until the next morning.  They also fear that every departure means another long tour.  We’ve given Liam the following script:  “When daddy leaves for work in his car it means that he comes home at night.  I will play with daddy in the morning”.  Being 2 ½, he tends to say it 47 times a day.  The point it, the tears have lessened because he can talk his way through it.

7.   Draw it out:  Your preschooler doesn’t have to master the art of drawing people to use art as a coping skill.  Consider asking your child to draw her feelings when she gets overwhelmed (“can you draw me a picture of how you’re feeling?”).  Then ask her to describe it.  Drawing tends to be a very calming activity so just the act of drawing a picture will help your child regulate her emotions a bit.  You might find that she’s better able to verbalize her feelings after she has a chance to calm down and draw, or you might be left with some very angry scribbles that don’t really require an explanation!

8.   Movement:  Sometimes a little calming movement can help children regulate their emotions.  Rocking, taking a walk, and stretching (have you tried Playful Planet Yoga yet?) can help children relax their bodies so that they are better able to cope with their emotions.  We recently bought rocking chairs for our balcony.  The kids love them!  They sit out there rocking away, watching the birds and the butterflies.  I didn’t buy them as coping strategy, but I certainly recommend them!

9.   Avoid over-stimulation:  Overly emotional kids tend to get over-stimulated quickly.  Try to keep parties and big outings short, and always plan on some quiet time.  They need frequent breaks to regroup.

Emotional intensity is just that:  Kids who have strong reactions to emotional events.  Be there for them, teach them some strategies, and help them learn to verbalize those feelings.

How do you help your child cope with emotions?

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes freelance for Everyday Family and allParenting, and blogs for The Huffington Post. She has a rock and roll husband and two kids. Katie believes in love, lattes, and the power of play.

Comments

  1. I’ve been using quiet time lately to help my youngest calm down. Since she pretty much stopped napping her emotions can really get out of control when she is tired. Thanks for the tips.

  2. What a great post. I have been working really hard at separating my kids and giving them each some down time lately. I have one who really needs it and, in the past, they were together every minute of the day but I have noticed by giving them each some time apart things are much calmer… until they find each other.

  3. As someone with a still very emotional six year old, these ate great tips. I often don not validate enough- have said suck it up a few too many times. Congrats on being Shell’s BFF

  4. Hey, I like this!! These are great tips. I’m bookmarking this page…or better yet I should just memorize it, because in the heat of the moment I’m sure I will forget I bookmarked it ;)

  5. Hi Katie! Stopping over from Shell’s. Fantastic article. Can’t wait to read more!

  6. More great tips, I love it!
    #3 is very helpful. I tell my son all the time to use his words, and I appreciate you reminding me that a child (my 4yr old) may not know what words to use to express his feelings. I will definitely add this to my list of survival tips.

  7. Great list! My current preschooler is fairly typical, but Imy now 7-year-old daughter I would still consider to be emotionally intense. Though it’s getting better. I know some of these things would still work for her. I’ve been working on the positive talk a lot lately.

  8. Stopping by from Shell’s. I have worked in early childhood for the past 11 years and have spent the past 3 working with children who are struggling in a typical preschool setting. A lot of their struggles center around impulse control and their emotional intensity. I love your tips because too often I see adults who want to “change” the emotions. Changing the emotions is not going to help giving the child tools to cope with the emotions will.

    I have often found that as the children get older and still are struggling with their emotional intensity any “situations” are usually quickly followed by extremem embarrassement.

    Thanks for the tips!

  9. Visting from Shell’s and so far I like what I see. I think I may have just found some help.

    This sounds just like my 3 year old, Logan, though at times emotionally intense seems like an understated description of him. He tends to express his emotions physically by hurting others – hitting, pinching, biting, etc. I often give him time out in his room if he hurts the younger ones, and he reacts by screaming and throwing all the toys around, kicking the door, ripping up books, and so on. Even after he is calm, explaining things to him doesn’t seem to help. I’m definitely going to have to read this a few more times and understand it clearly, so I can see what I can use to help him … and me. :)

    Have you written anything about when kids refuse to eat? Logan was a pretty good eater until about a month ago when he started school and had to get up earlier and eat earlier and faster than he was used to. Most days he refuses to eat breakfast or will only eat fruit, and lately has begun skipping his school snack. Sometimes he wants lunch, sometimes not. He has gotten very picky about what he will eat, and will freak out and throw a huge tantrum if I try to get him to eat one more bite when he doesn’t want it, even favorite foods. He will cry to the point of making himself gag or throw up what he has eaten. He eats a little better at dinner and afternoon snack.
    My concern is that he is rapidly losing weight from his already small frame, and I feel that not eating before going to school will affect his morning. I have learned I can’t force him to eat cause it stresses us both out, but I wonder if there is something I can do to increase his appetite?
    Sorry this is so long. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Tks.

  10. This was SUCH a helpful post. We have some seriously enormous emotions going on in our house. E’s just starting to verbalize anxiety, fear, and sadness at her dad being gone a lot. And the temper tantrums she never had at two are suddenly appearing in full force now that she’s three. Love the calming activity suggestions, and “self talk.” Also might need some of those rocking chairs ;)

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  1. […] process of learning emotional regulation skills generally begins early in infancy and continues through adolescence. However, if that process is […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    Kids and Emotional Intelligence…

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