Father and mother sitting outside with daughter holding a flower

Helping Your Child Manage Feelings

8/4/15 by Judy Ohm

​When kindergartners struggle in school, it’s not usually because they don’t know the alphabet, and it’s not because they can’t count. At the kindergarten level, school success depends greatly on the ability to express feelings and emotions, share, take turns, and use other social and emotional skills.

Children aren’t born with the ability to regulate their emotions. They may not even know how to identify when they are happy or sad much less to recognize how their bodies, feelings and perceptions are affected by those emotions.

Emotional self-regulation is the process of identifying feelings, managing the physical reactions, emotions and thoughts related to those feelings, and reacting appropriately. It is learned starting in our early years, like walking, toilet training and other developmental achievements. For the rest of our lives, we build on the core emotional-regulation skills we begin learning in our early years. Research has shown that social and emotional development is a better indicator of college success than the ACT.

Supporting Your Child’s Development

Fortunately, parents, educators and others in a child’s life can help children learn to better identify their feelings and respond appropriately. While you can’t change your child’s temperament, and some children develop more quickly than others, it is possible to coach your child’s emotional development.

As a parent, what can you do to engage your child’s emotional self-regulation?

  • Work with your child to identify his or her emotions. This can begin even in infancy. When your baby is crying, say, “I know you’re upset and you’re crying.” Use accurate words to describe emotions from the start and continue as children grow. With toddlers, you may need to use simple words: angry, sad, happy. As children grow, so will the complexity of their emotions.
  • Help your child identify and be comfortable with emotions. You can use positive parenting strategies by praising your child for expressing emotions and using playtime to help children learn about their feelings.
  • Let your child know that it’s OK to have emotions and help them find positive ways to express them. Avoid telling your child how to feel or acting as though you disapprove of their emotions. Children may need to do something physical, or they may need calming strategies such as taking deep breaths and saying, “I am OK and I can calm my body down.”
  • Be a role model. Your child will learn emotional self-regulation from watching you manage your day-to-day frustrations. Some of the techniques you learn for your child can also work for you.

For more information about emotional self-regulation in children, download this PDF from the website of Incredible Years, a training program for parents, children and teachers.

Three Deep Breaths

In Wilder’s parenting classes, we help parents learn to coach emotional self-regulation. Often, parents report real changes in their children after several weeks of class.

On one occasion, a parent came to class and told us about her child, who had been acting disruptively. The parent brought her child to a quiet place, but he still did not calm down. She told him, “I am so frustrated with your behavior. I don’t know what to do.”

He looked at her and said, “I think you should take three deep breaths.”

He was right. Our courses teach parents how breath can be an effective way to calm a person’s body, and we ask parents to practice techniques they learn in class. Often, they are unfamiliar to both children and parents at first, but with time and patience these practices can pay off.

In this case, the parent asked her son to do the breaths with her. Then the child took a nap.

Judy Ohm is director of Early Childhood Services at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Wilder offers free and low-cost parenting classes and other services for parents and families.