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Big Feelings in Little People – Ways to Support Children in Managing Difficult Emotions


Joyous laughter to a piercing cry in a matter of moments – a child’s emotions can be difficult to follow, much less manage. Educators and parents alike ride the waves of kids’ and students’ feelings. They try to empathize and support them through challenges, and search for teachable moments when navigating these difficult feelings. With the right tools and strategies, you can help the children in your life learn how to keep reason in the driver’s seat. 


We’ve likely all heard the term “self-regulation” but what is “co-regulation”?  


Co-regulation sounds simple but is vital for any child learning to self-regulate. For a child to regulate their emotions, the adults around them must regulate themselves and model calm. This may look like: 


  • Asking a child to take slow, deep breaths with you 

  • Keeping a genuine empathetic tone as you talk through issues 

  • Simply sitting with the child at their eye level and saying, “I’m here to help.” 

 A child’s likelihood of developing a healthy level of self-regulation greatly increases when they are surrounded by adults who are strong models of this essential skill. Ask yourself, “Am I co-regulating or co-escalating" in challenging moments. Co-regulation occurs when a child’s storm meets an adult’s unshakable calm.  


Name It to Tame It 


Mad, sad, happy, afraid – these are simpler emotions to label. As we get older, we know there are greater nuances to these larger categories of emotion. To effectively work with our emotions, we need the language to name them. “Name it to tame it” is a phrase coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, simply meaning that when we can accurately identify our emotion in each moment, we are better able to reduce stress and potentially decrease the intensity of what we are feeling. For example, if a child puts their head down when they get a math problem wrong, you might try privately checking in and using empathetic statements like “I know you tried hard and probably feel discouraged. I’m still proud of you.” Try hanging up a developmentally appropriate emotion wheel and have your children or students refer to it when trying to self-identify how they are feeling.  


R-E-L-A-X 


The truth is, kids have more pressure on them today than we did as children. Social media, the ever-changing state of the world, technology, and other factors have created more stress for people at younger and younger ages. Children need to be explicitly taught relaxation techniques to carry them through their academic careers and beyond. They also need to be given opportunities to identify which relaxation and self-care strategies work best for them and which ones do not. Provide your students with a menu of strategies, give them chances to practice, and remind them in challenging moments of strategies that have been helpful to them. Some options are: 


  • taking slow deep breaths 

  • looking out a window or at a picture of something beautiful 

  • clenching and unclenching fists 

  • rolling the neck and shoulders slowly to stretch

Expose children to a variety of options and follow-up by asking “Did this help you relax?” 


Being tasked with managing children’s emotions is no easy feat, but with the right tools, you can help your kids and students navigate the complexities of the many emotions they feel.

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