Managing Feelings (children)

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Like with learning any new skill, children experience ups and downs when they are trying to manage their feelings and behaviours. Parents and carers can play an important part in helping children to self-regulate. You can:

  • Provide particular support at times when kids are upset, tired or angry. F
  • Break down complicated tasks into smaller parts so children can practise self-regulation without becoming overwhelmed. Help your child get ready for school or their early childhood service by breaking down the morning’s jobs into more manageable things like breakfast, getting dressed and packing a bag instead of simply talking about “getting ready”, which can be overwhelming for many kids.
  • Lead by example and demonstrate appropriate self-regulation. Think about how you negotiate decisions at home, manage conflict or a change of plans, and communicate with your child’s teacher.

Learning to manage feelings

Children’s feelings are often intense. They can be quickly taken over by feelings of excitement, frustration, fear or joy.

When feelings take over children’s behaviour, they can find it difficult to manage without adult support. This is why learning how to recognise and manage feelings is a very important part of children’s social and emotional development.

Understanding that all sorts of feelings are normal, that they can be named, and that there are ways of handling them are the first things children need to learn about feelings. Understanding that feelings affect behaviour, and being able to recognise how this happens are important steps for learning to manage feelings.

How parents and carers can help children manage feelings

1. Notice feelings
Before we can learn how to control feelings, we first have to notice them. You can help your children notice feelings by noticing them yourself and giving them labels: happy, sad, excited, frustrated, angry, embarrassed, surprised, etc. Giving feelings names helps to make them more manageable for children.

Learning to pay attention to how they are feeling helps children understand that they can have emotions without being controlled by them.

2. Talk about everyday feelings
Talking with children about what it’s like when you’re angry, sad, nervous or excited helps them find ways to express feelings without having to act them out through negative behaviours. Children learn these skills best when they hear adults and peers using words to express feelings and when they are encouraged to use words like this too.

Learning to name feelings helps children find ways to express them without having to act them out.

3. Create space for talking about difficult feelings
Help children to separate a feeling from a difficult reaction by helping them name it. Being able to say or think, “I am feeling angry,” means that children don’t have to act really angry before anyone takes notice. It allows them to choose how they will respond. The same idea works with other difficult feelings like nervousness or fear.

Learning to cope with feelings helps children manage their behaviour at school and at home. It helps them learn better, relate to others better and feel better about themselves.

Things to remember

  • learning skills for managing feelings takes practice
  • noticing and naming feelings comes first
  • talking about everyday feelings in normal conversations makes it easier when the difficult feelings come up
  • talking about difficult feelings is usually best tried after the feelings have calmed down a bit, and when children, parents and carers are feeling relaxed.

Things to try at home

  • Use feeling words when you talk with children about everyday situations: “You scored a goal! How exciting was that!”; or: “It’s pretty disappointing that Kati can’t play with you today.”
  • Invite children to describe their own feelings: “I’m feeling pretty nervous about going to the dentist. How about you?”; or “How did you feel when…?”

Suggestions for Families – Helpful ways of supporting children’s emotional development

  1. Listen and validate the child’s emotional experience 

Listen to what children say and acknowledge their feelings. This helps children to identify emotions and understand how they work. Being supported in this way helps children work out how to manage their emotions. You might say, “You look worried. Is something on your mind?” or “It sounds like you’re really angry. Let’s talk about it.”

2. View emotions as an opportunity for connecting and teaching 

Children’s emotional reactions provide ‘teachable moments’ for helping them understand emotions and learn effective ways to manage them. You might say, “I can see you’re really frustrated about having to wait for what you want. Why don’t we read a story while we’re waiting?”

3. Encourage problem-solving to manage emotions 

Help children develop their skills for managing emotions by helping them think of different ways they could respond. You might say, “What would help you feel brave?” or “How else could you look at this?”

4. Set limits in a supportive way 

Set limits on inappropriate behaviour so that children understand that having feelings is okay, but acting inappropriately is not. You might say, “I know you’re upset that your friend couldn’t make it over, but that does not make it okay to yell at me.”

Some unhelpful things to avoid

  1. Dismissing children’s emotions 

Telling children not to feel the way they do (eg, by saying, “Don’t be scared/sad/angry”), can lead children to believe that their emotions are wrong and they are bad for having them. Remember that all feelings are okay and for children to learn how to manage them they first need to be acknowledged and understood.

2. Lying to children about situations to avoid emotional reactions 

Telling children things like, “It won’t hurt a bit” (when you know it will), can actually increase the emotional reaction. It teaches them not trust the person who has lied. It is important to communicate with children about difficult situations that affect them in ways they can understand. Providing information to children at their level, with reassurance, helps them be prepared and work out ways to manage their emotional responses.

3. Shaming children for their emotions 

Sometimes adults tease children about their emotional responses or try to talk them out of feeling a certain way, which can lead feelings of shame. Saying things like, “Why are you crying like a baby?” or “You’re such a scaredy-cat!” undermines children’s confidence. Instead of helping them to feel brave it may lead them to feel guilty for experiencing that emotion.

4. Ignoring children’s emotional responses 

Sometimes adults may think that the child will just grow out of their emotional responses and ignore them. This can communicate to children that their emotions are unimportant and limits their opportunities to learn effective ways of managing their emotions.

Source: APS KidsMatter

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