Helping children understand and handle their emotions

Supporting children as they learn about emotions and develop the skills to manage strong feelings is part of helping them grow.

In a recent article assessing the impact of this year of remote education, social-emotional learning was cited as likely to be the area where children show the biggest deficit. They noted that what children will most need to learn or re-learn when they return to school buildings is how to be in a classroom filled with other children.

Social-emotional learning focuses on what we learn while being part of a social group. For children, it includes things like learning to let someone else go first, to apologize when you hurt someone’s feelings, to offer help when someone is struggling, and manage all the emotions that come with not having everything go exactly as you hoped. 

Emotions are a big deal.

Kidshealth.org offers these basic facts about emotions:

  • Emotions come and go. Most of us feel many different emotions throughout the day. Some last just a few seconds. Others might linger to become a mood.
  • Emotions can be mild, intense, or anywhere in between. The intensity of an emotion can depend on the situation and on the person.
  • There are no good or bad emotions, but there are good and bad ways of expressing (or acting on) emotions. Learning how to express emotions in acceptable ways is a separate skill — managing emotions — that is built on a foundation of being able to understand emotions.

Recognizing and managing emotions 

We all recognize when an event affects how we feel. Depending on our temperament and other things affecting us at the moment, our emotional reactions can vary wildly. Something that caused little emotional reaction last week can send us over the edge today. 

Scientists used to think there were just 6 basic emotions, but a study published in 2017 suggests there is evidence for 27 distinct varieties of reported emotional experience.

Why is it so hard to handle big emotions?

A big emotion sends many different chemicals coursing through our bodies. These chemicals trigger a physical reaction within us. This physical reaction can make us uncomfortable physically. It then triggers thoughts and reactions in our brain. The part of the brain responsible for triggering emotions, the amygdala, is the most primitive part of the brain. It is responsible for keeping us safe by triggering our ‘flight or fight’ response to perceived danger. It takes no conscious thought to start the cascade of feelings when the amygdala is triggered.

Because it happens outside of our consciousness, we are often already fully engulfed in an emotion when the conscious part of our brain – our prefrontal cortex – takes note. Despite our best intentions, without self-regulation our emotions can lead us to say or do things we might later regret.

 

How do we help children who are still learning to self-regulate feel big emotions?

 

Says Karen Young, “Self-regulation is NOT about ‘not feeling’. Locking feelings away can cause as much trouble as any outburst. There is nothing wrong with having big feelings. All feelings are valid and it’s okay for kids to feel whatever they feel. What’s important is how those feelings are managed. The key is to nurture children towards being able to acknowledge and express what they’re feeling, without causing breakage to themselves, their friendships, or other people.”

Helping children identify their feelings and express what they are feeling is the first step. The brain is still developing in young children. Our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until adulthood. Every big feeling is an opportunity to further develop self-regulation skills.

We can acknowledge the big feelings our children are having and help them name what they are feeling. If we take the time to let them work their way through it, without taking over, we give them the space they need to work on self-regulation and learn how to self-soothe.

For more practical tips on helping children handle their big emotions, join Dr. Aoife Magee for an online workshop on Nurturing Emotions, Wednesday, March 3rd, from 6:30 – 8:30 pm. Participants will learn the 5 steps of Emotion Coaching and take away practical strategies for aligning different parenting or teaching styles with emotion coaching for the children in their lives.

The workshop is free for parents and offers 3 hours of UGB/Set 2 professional development credit for childcare practitioners. To register email poel@linnbenton.edu or call 541-917-4899.