How To Help Kids When Big Emotions Happen

Supporting our kids as they learn emotional regulation


When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.  – L. R. Knost 


One of the tasks children and teens (even some adults) struggle the most with is emotional regulation. 

When individuals are struggling with emotional regulation, their emotions feel very out of control to them.  In young children, this can look like throwing tantrums, refusal behaviors and excessive worrying.

Struggling to regulate emotions is pretty common, even us adults struggle with it at times.  However, it is pretty easy to teach kids skills which help them to regulate their emotions. 

There are three steps children need to learn to regulate their emotions. 

They need to:

1).  Stop

2).  Name their feeling

3).  Calm that feeling down

These three steps seem simple enough, and they can be, once they are mastered.  But within each step, there are several skills that must be taught.

For the first step, the “stop” step, children need to be able to recognize when they are beginning to lose control of their emotions. 

For young children, this typically means paying attention to their bodies and how their bodies feel.  To make this simple for kids, I often talk to tell them to notice when their bodies start to feel uncomfortable.  

Then children have to learn how to stop themselves.  They need to be able to use self-talk to tell themselves their bodies feel uncomfortable and they need to stop so they can calm their bodies down.

Finally, children need to decide what their stop signal will be and then use it.  Will they tell themselves to stop?  Will they tell themselves to calm down?  Will they tell themselves to chill?  Their stop signal can be anything, it just needs to be something simple they can remember.  

For the second step, the “name their feeling” step, children need to be able to identify their feelings. 

Books are a great way for children to learn how to identify feelings in other people and then carry them over to themselves.  The Way I Feel and The Color Monster are two of my favorite feelings books.  

When reading books, you can stop and ask your child how they think each person in the story is feeling. 

You can also ask them if they have ever felt that way.  If they have, you can also ask them how their bodies felt when they felt that way.  

When a person feels nervous, they typically have a funny feeling in their stomachs and feel like their heart is beating fast.  When a person feels angry, usually their chest and arms feel tight.  

You can also ask your child similar questions when you are watching tv together.  Another way to learn to identify feelings is to talk about their day and then asking them how they felt when a specific situation happened.  The more children talk about their feelings the better they will become at identifying them.  


For the third step, the “calm that feeling down” step, children need to use a coping skill to calm down that feeling.  

There are many strategies you can use to calm down.  Children can practice different ones when they are calm and decide which ones they like best.  

Here are some common coping strategies:

Breathing– breathing is our most effective coping strategy.  It allows more oxygen to enter the brain.  Children should use belly breathing.  This is where when you inhale, your abdomen expands like a balloon and when you  exhale your abdomen deflates.  It is important to do this correctly or it is ineffective.  Children often want to breathe in and suck in their abdomen at the same time.  If you have the practice while laying on their back, it is easier for them to learn.  


Counting– counting is a good distraction for our brains.  Children can count forwards or backwards to ten.  If they are still upset, they can do it again.  


Dance- dancing is also a good distraction.  And it is hard to be upset when you are dancing.


5-4-3-2-1- this is an activity where you engage your five senses.  You name five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.


Gratitude- stopping and naming all the things you are thankful for is another good distraction for your brain.  It also refocuses your attention to all the positive things in your life.  


All of these steps are best taught when the child is calm and ready to learn. 

In the middle of a tantrum would not be the best time to try to teach these steps.  But with lots of practice when they are calm, children can carry these steps when needed.  


If you child continues to struggle with emotional regulation and would benefit from counseling, please contact Champaign Counseling at (217) 203-2008.