Managing big feelings

As a former child care provider, I have seen my fair share of meltdowns, temper tantrums and screaming fits. It is a normal part of a child’s growth and development to be able to express feelings, wants and needs. However, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be an epic battle. Big battles can often be eliminated when a child learns how to self-regulate their emotions.

What is self-regulation

Self-regulation is being able to manage feelings so they don’t interrupt daily life. It is resisting the urge to “lose it “ in upsetting or frustrating situations, or being able to calm yourself down when anxiety or fear is about to take over. It also includes being able to focus on a task, focus attention on a new task, control impulses and learn behavior that helps them deal with other children. The goal of self-regulation is NOT to “not feel.” There is nothing wrong with having big feelings. It’s OK for kids to feel whatever they feel. What’s important is to help children acknowledge and express what they’re feeling.

Why is it needed

When children can regulate their emotional responses, they become successful in their daily lives. When children master self-regulation, it leads to:

• Increased learning in school by giving them the ability to sit still and be an active listener in the classroom.

• Appropriate behavior by controlling impulses and avoiding loud and disruptive talk.

• Friendship building by taking turns in games, sharing toys and expressing emotions like joy and anger in appropriate ways.

• Independence by allowing them the ability to make good decisions about behavior and learning how to behave in new situations with less guidance from you.

• Managing stress by learning how to cope with strong feelings, learning to calm themselves down after getting angry.

How to teach self-regulation

There are some very simple methods parents can try to teach self-regulation.

Modeling. Show your child how you can do a frustrating task without getting upset. You could say something like, “Wow that was hard. I’m glad I didn’t get angry because I might not have been able to do it.” Look out parents – this one will be tough!

Talk about emotions. When your child struggles with a difficult feeling, encourage him to name the feeling and what caused it. Wait until the emotion has passed if that’s easier.

Find appropriate ways to react. Teach her to put their hands in her pockets when they want to touch or strikeout. Say things like “Let’s relax “ and “I can help you if you like.”

Clear rules on behavior expectations. Talk with your child about the behavior you expect – for example, “The shop we’re going to has lots of things that can break. It’s OK to look, but please don’t touch.” Give your child a gentle reminder as you enter the shop.

Praise your child. When he or she shows self-control and follows the rules, tell them what they have done well and why.

Hot Cocoa Breathing. Pretend that you have your hands wrapped around a mug of hot cocoa. Breathe in through your nose for three seconds, as though you’re smelling the delicious chocolatey smell. Then breathing out through your mouth for three seconds, as though you are blowing it cool. Keep doing this four or five times, until you start to feel yourself relax.

Figure 8 Breathing. Using your finger, imagine that you are writing the figure “8.” You can do it anywhere you like – on your arm, your leg, your tummy, a soft toy gorilla – anywhere. As you draw the top of the 8, breathe in for three. When you get to the middle, hold for one. Then, as you trace the bottom part, breathe out for three. Let it be a really smooth, relaxing movement and repeat it a few times. Ahhhh … bliss.

There is no doubt that sometimes even parents need to learn a little self-regulation. Here is hoping you have a happy, healthy, stress-free home.


Carrie Kube is a Director for Iowa River Valley Early Childhood Area Board. All thoughts and opinions expressed are that of the author and not the Board and/or its community partners.