How to Help Your Child Work Through BIG Emotions

Monday September 27, 2021

Young children are often overwhelmed by big emotions in the natural process of their development.  When they face ongoing stressors like cancer or a pandemic, giving them support, tools and skills to learn about and work through their emotions is critical.  Child life specialist Rebekah Reimer provides some practical guidance to help.

A forest with tall evergreen trees growing on a mountain path and fog settling behind. Text reads “‘When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos’ L.R. Knost”.

Children are very honest when it comes to how they feel. They feel deeply and express when they are happy, and also when they become upset or frustrated. When these big emotions arise, they may have a hard time and need help to guide them through those feelings. As parents and caregivers, it’s important to provide a safe place for them to learn, giving them the tools they need to process these emotions in a healthy way.

Tools to Help Your Child Identify and Learn About Their Emotions

Emotional development begins in infancy and progresses throughout childhood. Identifying emotions is a powerful skill for children to learn. Offering a variety of activities that focus on different emotions can help them to explore and manage their own feelings.

Emotion Cards

Emotion cards are a set of cards that show a variety of different emotions. These cards can be made at home using photographs of your children and family members, pictures from magazines, clipart, or pictures drawn by hand.

Using emotion cards can help a child get comfortable with naming and recognizing feelings. It can help them learn the visual characteristics of emotions, so they are better able to identify their own feelings, as well as feelings of others.

These cards can be used in many different activities including:

  • Going through the cards one by one, naming each emotion.
  • Describing an emotion and having your child guess which one you have described.
  • Picking a card, having your child copy the face pictured, and then naming the emotion together.
A matching activity with emotions written on the left, and the corresponding facial expression shown to the right, in the form of a cartoon image of a child. The emotions include: interested, shy, angry, confused, happy, hurt, tired, shocked, embarrassed, grumpy, excited, sad, scared, proud, and disgusted.

An Emotions Matching Activity

Phrases to Use to Help Guide Your Child Through Their Big Emotions

1. It’s okay to be ______ .

It’s important to teach your child that emotions are meant to be experienced and felt. Using this language validates their emotions and opens up the opportunity for them acknowledge how they feel. It also teaches them that any emotion they are feeling, including negative emotions, are not something to be ashamed of or feared.

Example: It’s okay to be upset. It’s good to let the sadness out.

2. I am listening. I am here for you and will not leave.

When a child is feeling those emotions, it’s important to create a safe space for them to process how they feel. By holding a space for them, and being present in the moment, you are creating security and allowing them the space to feel the emotion. Creating this space allows them to learn how to soothe themselves and move past the hurt.

3. It’s okay to feel _______. It’s not okay to ________.

Children need boundaries, and are comforted by them. Setting clear limits in how a child expresses their emotions can be beneficial as they learn to express and work through their emotions. All emotions are okay to feel, but how they work through them is important as we want to keep them and others safe. You can help your child regulate their feelings in a safe way by using statements such as:

It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hit your brother. How can you express your anger in another way?

Here is a video of families talking about their feelings and emotions together!

Coping Techniques for in the Moment

In situations where children feel overwhelmed by their emotions, it’s important to have safe coping techniques that they are able to go to.

Calm Down Jar

Calm Down Jars can be used to help children release anger and frustration, but also allow space for them to breathe and calm down. A child can shake the jar as hard as they like and then hold it up to their eye or place it on a flat surface, watching all the glitter/beads slowly float and settle to the bottom. During that time, you can teach them to sit and be still, just like the glitter/beads, and take big deep breaths until everything settles.

This activity can also be used to help the child “shake all their sillies out”, to ground themselves, and re-focus.

A mason jar filled with turquoise liquid. Gold sparkles are floating and settling at the bottom while white bubbles float to the top.

Make your own calming jar. The video below shows how to make three different calming jars to help stressed kids refocus, using these everyday supplies and optional extras.

List of supplies needed:

  • Clear jar.
  • Water and glitter.
  • Food colouring of your choice (optional).
  • Glycerin, clear glue or dish soap to create resistance.
  • Water beads and miniature glow-in-the-dark stars (optional).
  • Baby oil and oil based colouring for multicolour calming jars (optional).
  • Teaspoon to stir and remove excess foam.
  • Glue gun or super glue to secure the lid.
  • Gems (optional, to decorate and personalize the jar).

Five Senses

This activity helps children learn how to focus when they feel fear, worry or anxiety. It is a grounding exercise they can use when they need to focus.

Instructions: Trace your hand in the air, or trace one finger around your other hand, and think, what is something I can SEE, SMELL, HEAR, TASTE and FEEL! You can also incorporate deep breathing in this activity by having the child breathe in as they trace up, and breathe out as they trace down each finger.

It can be beneficial to create a reference poster with the child to have as a reminder, so they are able to remember and go through the exercise when they need it.  For children with limited or no sight, make the hand tactile by cutting it out of a different material from the base board, and help them choose different tactile objects to represent the senses at each fingertip.

A child’s right hand is being traced onto paper, using a black marker that is held in an adult’s hand.

Create a Five Senses reminder tool at home

A traced out handprint with one of the five senses, and a small picture of the body part associated with each sense, written at the tip of each finger (see – eye, smell – nose, hear – ear, taste – lips, feel/touch – hand).

Activity for Working Through Big Emotions and Problem Solving

Stop Light – STOP, THINK, TRY

This activity teaches children to pause, evaluate and work through their problems. It uses the visual of a stop light (red/yellow/green) to guide the child through problem solving, but seeing the colours is not essential.

It reminds the child to pause and take a deep breath when a problem arises, rather than reacting. Then they are asked to think about a solution on their own, and finally they are encouraged to try it out. This activity puts them in control, and teaches them about being accountable for their own feelings and actions.

White poster paper with three coloured circles down the left side to mimic a traffic light, and text to the right of each. Beside the red circle, text reads “STOP - there’s a problem, take a deep breath, talk about the problem”. Beside the yellow circle, text reads “THINK – slow down, take a minute to think, think about possible solutions”. Beside the green circle, text reads “TRY – try out your solution, have fun!!!”

Meeting a Child Where They are At

Young children may feel or exhibit different feelings when they are tired, hungry or in pain. They also may not know what the feeling they are experiencing is called, and as result have a hard time verbalizing how they feel.

For example:

  • A child may not be able to read a word in a book they are enjoying, and may feel upset, sad, or frustrated. To compensate for that feeling, or cover it up, they may become angry and lash out at others. They may also say statements such as “I hate reading”, or “reading is dumb”.
  • A child getting ready for a surgery or medical procedure may be nervous, but outwardly expresses anger or bad behaviour such as not listening.

For many children, mad or sad is usually their go-to emotion. When they are redirected from something they are doing, they may crumble into a heap crying, or they stomp/kick in anger.

When a child is hungry or tired and exhibits big emotions, it’s important to understand that offering an activity or a teachable moment might not work at that time. It may be best to save that for later, and just meet the child where they are at.

Using a statement such as:

“I can see that you are pretty tired. Let’s sit together and read a book/watch a show while we calm down.”

Or you can do some detective work to see what the child may be feeling. For example:

“I can see that you are a little upset right now and are having a hard time listening. Are you hungry or thirsty? Let’s have a snack and a drink while we figure out what activity we want to do later.”

Here is a song from Sesame Street about big feelings and having lot of different feelings all at once!

Books to Normalize Big Feelings

Reading books about feelings with children is great to help them learn to recognize and understand what they are feeling, and then learn to manage their emotions. Here is a selection of five super books to read with your child.

The book When sadness is at your door by Eva Eland sits on a child’s lap as they hold it. The book is opened to a page showing an illustration of a child standing on a tree stump hugging a blue shadow that is their sadness. The text on the page reads “Maybe all it wants to know is that it is welcome”.

“When sadness is at your door” by Eva Eland

When Sadness is at Your Door by Eva Eland

This book normalizes being sad, talking about sadness and also discusses ways to manage the feeling.

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek

This book literally walks through the heart with a beautiful cut-out feature, and explores all different emotions a heart can have.

The Angry Dragon – by Michael Gordon

This book helps children learn to normalize and constructively deal with their anger.

The Bad Seed by Jory John

This book focuses on self-acceptance, teaching children that their actions do not define themselves and they are able to transform oneself through willpower and self-acceptance.

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain

This book helps children give a name to each of the emotions they feel and understand that all feelings are normal.

A Final Word

I hope these activities and resources are helpful as you continue the discussion about feelings with your children. Together you can help them gain the skills they need to identify emotions, understand what they are feeling, and work through those overwhelming emotions.

About the Author

Rebekah stands in front of abundant greenery. She has blond hair and is wearing a dark blue jacket.Rebekah Dieleman is a Certified Child Life Specialist who has experience working with children and youth in a variety of settings, including recreational and athletic clubs, camp environments, community-based programming, and hospitals. After completing a BSc. in Kinesiology, her further education to become a Certified Child Life Specialist included an internship with Morgan Livingstone.

Rebekah has worked as a Program Director for Special Needs Camps for the last four summers, developing inclusive programming that supports children in camp settings. She is also a NCCP Certified Regional Coach for figure skating, and has been coaching children and youth for the past nine years.

As a recent Certified Child Life Specialist, Rebekah is very passionate about supporting the psychosocial needs of children and families.

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