Giving Kids Tools to Manage Big Emotions
As parents and leaders, we often to want to fix a child’s hurts, make the uncomfortable situation return to normal, and rush in to rescue them. When children are very young they do need quite a bit of rescuing. As they get older, however, if the child is not involved in helping solve problems they encounter, we are inadvertently teaching them that they are incapable of working through their hurts and problems with confidence.
Our children are growing up in a world that is increasingly precarious and unstable. We have a great responsibility as parents and leaders to help children learn to regulate their big emotions by giving them “tools” to use in moments of anger, sadness, fear, and all the myriad emotions they experience.
But before we can begin to help children through their problems, we need to help them identify their feelings and reflect those feelings.
As a school counselor, I spend a great deal of my time teaching children that all of their feelings are OK. Feelings are feelings — they aren’t right or wrong. Allowing space for children to feel their emotions and then reflect their feelings is a validating experience for a child and very simple for leaders and parents to do but is often neglected.
Let me share an example to illustrate this technique. While teaching a parenting class at my school a few years ago, the homework for the following week was for parents to watch for a time their child had a big emotion and practice “reflecting” the child’s feelings.
The next week, a mom choked back tears as she related a situation that had occurred when her child perceived there was danger but the mom knew there was no real danger. The child started crying uncontrollably, terrified by the perceived threat. This mom said, “Normally, I would just start saying, ‘You are fine. There is nothing to be scared of. There is no reason to cry.’” She then remembered the class homework and said, “I crawled into the back seat of the car with my child, put my arm around her and said, ‘That really scared you, didn’t it? I can tell you have some really big feelings about what happened.’” Mom said her child stopped crying, calmed down, and started to talk about those feelings.
Reflecting a child’s feelings communicates acceptance, which helps the child feel understood, accepted, valued, and worthwhile. As a believer, Jesus is our greatest example of having this kind of compassion. We can also remind children that Jesus understands them better than anyone, knows all their feelings, and they are valuable and accepted by Him.
There are many tools and strategies that can be taught to children to foster self-regulation and emotional control. One of the tools children can practice is taking slow, deep breaths when they are upset, angry, overwhelmed, or fearful. Breathing in slowly through their nose and then out through their mouth can usually help calm their brain right away. Stretching and exercising, listening to music, talking to someone, or drawing or journaling are a few other tools children can use. Parents and leaders can help children learn which tools help them best.
Additional Teaching Strategies
Following are four additional teaching strategies parents or leaders can apply in various situations when emotions become overwhelming for a child.
Teaching Healthy Self-talk
The next time your child is upset about something, try listening to what they say to themselves by paying attention to body language, their emotions, and what words might be coming out of their mouth. Sometimes in overwhelming or fearful situations, a child’s self-talk will be irrational, untrue, and cause unnecessary stress and emotional dysregulation.
Once you have an idea of what the child is thinking or saying, you can rephrase or reframe their experience, making it more rational and healthier. Helping your child verbalize God’s promises such as “Jesus will never leave me” or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” will give them the courage and strength to get through stressful situations. When you hear your child making a negative, self-defeating statement, gently remind her who she is in Christ.
Teaching Perspective/Size of the Problem
Children can be taught to ask, when confronted with a problem, worry, or crisis, “Is this really worth getting this upset about?” “Is it a big problem or a little problem?”
These questions are posed to help children measure the size of the problem they are experiencing. When children learn to examine a situation and determine how big a problem is, they begin to understand that the size of their reaction or expected response must match the size of the problem. This can greatly reduce the dysregulation, anxiety, and worry that can occur.
Parents and leaders can also help model how to change the outcome of a problem by not overreacting to a small problem — remember that our children are watching! When someone else took the parking spot you wanted, did your emotional reaction match the size of your problem?
Teaching about Things I Can and Can’t Control
Childhood ought to be a time of relative freedom from worry. Unfortunately, the pandemic and its aftermath shined a bright light on the mental health issues children are facing, including fear and anxiety. While we cannot shield our children from all anxiety, we can minimize it. Much of what children worry about is out of their control, and we need to help them recognize this.
One activity you can try is having children write two things that are in their control inside a circle (their choices, what they watch on television, etc.) and write two things that are out of their control outside the circle (what their friends do, the news, things that have already happened, etc.).
As Christian parents and leaders, worrying about things outside of our control might hit close to home. Reminding ourselves and our children that God wants us to trust Him in all things, that God takes care of the birds of the air and will certainly take care of us, is such a comfort.
Teaching Children to Pray
If prayer is to become real to our children, and if God is to become real to them, real-life prayer experiences will be necessary in building a solid faith foundation. From very early on, children should be encouraged to talk to God using their own words. You can teach this best by letting children hear you pray to God in your own words — simply “talk to God.”
Children need to talk honestly to God about things that are fearful or concerning to them. They learn this best from parents and leaders being honest with God in prayer about uncertain situations in our world and circumstances in our lives that we don’t understand.
We should not worry that when children’s prayers aren’t answered in the ways they hope that their faith will diminish. It is in these very disappointments and hard times that God becomes real and they see that God can be trusted in everything. Thankfulness comes easy for young children. Nurturing children to praise God in difficult times in a world that is so discontent produces spiritual maturity.
When my youngest son was suddenly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a lifelong disease with no cure, at the age of seven, I will never forget a single word of the simple, childlike prayer he prayed in the hospital: “Dear Jesus, thank You that I have type 1 diabetes, because You know what You are going to use me for. Amen.”
My young son’s prayer of faith surprised me as I struggled in that moment to make sense of my own faith. Now at 20 years old, my son will tell you there have definitely been many discouraging and hard days, but his foundation in faith and prayer began when he was a young child.
God has given us the honor, privilege, and great responsibility of loving and helping children in our care, but He doesn’t leave us to do it alone! Spending time on our knees on behalf of the children in our lives and, most importantly, asking God to come alongside us with His wisdom and strength as we raise the next generation, is vital.
Fondra Magee is mom to two grown sons, elementary school counselor, and wife to Tom. Her passions include type 1 diabetes advocacy, play therapy, clown ministry, and sharing God’s love with her community and all who do not know Him.