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As a school counselor and mom of two young girls, my day is full of opportunities to help kids manage their feelings. And few things bring out bigger emotions in children than facing mistakes and failure.
Like many adults, my initial reaction is wanting to swoop in and fix things. But then I recall the most crucial task in both my roles: teaching kids to accept and manage their feelings.
Kids are not born knowing how to stay calm when confronting challenges or how to recover from failure. Emotion regulation--expressing feelings in a constructive and healthy way--is a skill we must teach. And it’s a critical one.
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The ability to regulate emotions is linked to everything from academic achievement to resilience, and overall well-being. The positives continue into adulthood--long-term benefits include better physical health and even higher income.
Here are 4 important steps you can take to build your child’s emotional toolkit. The first two steps happen prior to a difficult situation, and the final two steps in the moment itself.
1. Explain Why Feelings Are Useful
Before kids can regulate their emotions, they must first begin to recognize them. In a calm moment, explain that feelings, even the big and uncomfortable ones, are part of our bodies. Just like our muscles, brain and heart, our emotions work to keep us healthy and safe.
Tell kids that strong and powerful emotions, like anger, trigger a warning system in our bodies. Our brain thinks we are in a dangerous situation and our body reacts in lots of different ways--a fast heartbeat, a red face, or maybe a headache.
You might say:
“When we have difficult feelings like anger or frustration, they are part of our body’s alarm system. Just like ambulances, fire trucks or police cars have sirens, our bodies have a special way of alerting us to problems. A headache, pounding heart, or an upset stomach are messages that we might need help or to make a different choice. Anytime we notice these changes, we are growing the part of our brains that helps us deal with emotions.”
Other ideas include:
- Name the body parts where YOU experience difficult emotions (“When I get sad, my stomach feels empty and sick.”)
- Draw an outline of the body and have kids point to or illustrate the areas where they experience strong feelings, as well as the sensations associated with each (“When I feel furious, my ears get hot and it feels like steam is going to come out of them.”)
- Read books like “When Sophie Gets Angry” by Molly Bang, “The Tiger In My Chest” by Elaheh Bos, or “Soda Pop Head” by Julia Cook and identify the physical changes that occur as these characters get more and more upset
- Play games like My Emotions Fan in the Growth Mindset Activity Kit. Using this fun and helpful activity lets kids exercise their creativity and learn more about different types of emotions
Once kids know that strong emotions and physical reactions are connected, they can begin to recognize the process within their own bodies.
2. Create an Action Plan
Now that you’ve discussed the importance of feelings, it’s time to make a plan for difficult situations. Tell kids that when they notice their rapid breathing, tense muscles, or upset stomach, it’s a cue to make choices that take back control.
When kids are calm (long car rides or bedtime work well) talk with them about the types of failures that trigger their strongest feelings: a poor grade on a spelling test, losing a soccer game at recess, or not understanding that homework question.
Knowing which scenarios elicit the biggest reactions means they can prepare themselves with a plan. You can simply draw a line down the center of a paper, with “triggers” you identified on one side, and “action plan” on the other.
Here are some great options for any type of trigger:
- Get a drink of water or take a bathroom break
- Choose 1-2 favorite Growth Mindset Phrases or Affirmations and make a visual reminder to keep on/inside desk
- Balanced breathing to the count of 3 (inhale 1-2-3, exhale 1-2-3) or progressive muscle relaxation at their desk
- Movement breaks (Many classrooms use “Brain Breaks” at regular intervals to relax and re-center)
Check out the Resilience Kit and the affirmations bracelets that children can cut out to wear as gentle reminders or to use to decorate notebooks, folders, etc. The activities in this kit are designed to help kids discover that resilience can be learned like any other skill. It just takes practice and patience.
- Discuss past reactions to failures, asking open-ended questions about what worked well and what they’d do differently next time
- Create a “Calm Down Corner” together where kiddos can decompress. Stock with soothing items (a mindful glitter jar, squishy balls, stuffed animals, paper and crayons)
- EFT Tapping (gently touch a series of pressure points on the face and body to process difficult feelings)
- Set a timer during frustrating homework assignments, and take breaks at scheduled intervals
- Notice if there’s a time of day when outbursts tend to happen, and consider whether a positive morning or evening routine or ritual may help
Our Self-Esteem Kit contains a detailed guide to using EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) to help children manage stress. EFT works by tapping a series of acupressure points on the face and upper body with two fingers whilst voicing our issue. This helps to “short-circuit” the fight or flight (stress) response and re-wire our brain to think more clearly about the problem.
3. Validate Feelings
In their most difficult moments, kids need to know that ALL feelings--including ones about failing--are okay to have. Big emotions are inevitable sometimes, and it’s knowing what to do with them that matters.
A crucial aspect of teaching emotion regulation is simply validating our kids’ strong feelings when they occur. In the midst of an emotional experience, they’re unlikely to take in our logical responses--no matter how helpful. Ask questions to better understand their frustrations, and communicate that you hear and accept exactly how they feel.
When the flood of emotions passes (signs include a big sigh, deep breath or a drop of the shoulders), kids are in a receptive (versus reactive) state and more ready to receive us. At this point, you might ask, “What should we do to tackle this?” or “How can we work on this problem?”
Once children know that all feelings are a friendly, simple way that our bodies communicate with us, even the difficult ones are easier to accept.
You are an amazing and emotional person who feels feelings. This can be annoying sometimes but it’s also your secret power. Keep being human.
Adam J. Kurtz, artist
To help build grit in your kids, use the Resilience Kit-- a collection of printable worksheets, posters, activities, and coloring pages designed to help children develop grit, resilience, and perseverance. These engaging activities are designed to help children learn how to cope with setbacks, welcome mistakes as opportunities to grow and overcome obstacles.
As parents, some of our strongest emotions can be provoked by our kids’ emotional states. Just as they must learn to regulate strong feelings, so must we. Having a plan is a great step, but our ability to stay calm in their toughest moments is still key.
Know that each child’s capacity for managing feelings is different (and age-dependent). The prefrontal cortex, the area regulating emotions, isn’t even fully developed until early adulthood.
By responding to our child’s frustrations with warmth and support, rather than reacting with our own high emotion, we can provide that experience.
Other ideas include:
- Invite them to match their breathing with yours, taking slower and longer breaths as they begin to relax
- Use the “Magic I” sentence to express frustrations and needs (“I feel….because….I would like. For example, “I feel furious because I don’t get this homework problem. I would like you to help me.”)
- Create a “Success Jar” filled with written examples of each time your kiddos (and you) faced failure using healthy coping skills
- Discuss your feelings about failure in real time and how you are managing them (“Right now, I am so frustrated that I didn’t handle a call at work the way I wanted. My teeth are clenched and my head is starting to hurt. I’m going to sit here for a minute and take some deep breaths until my heart stops racing.”) The Big Life Journal has a section called Failure Is Learning and is a great way for you and your child to share stories and write out thoughts and feelings about this topic.
- Remember the “Train Analogy” for moving through extreme emotions. Says Katie McLaughlin, “Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains traveling through them.” We must keep going to the other side--the light at the end of the tunnel.
Emotional regulation is a crucial skill for children to learn. When they experience "big feelings" and overwhelm, due to facing mistakes and failure, we want them to know how to move through these emotions in a positive way.