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3 steps to helping kids control emotions

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Angry boy looking at puzzles


Imagine you’re sitting at a set of traffic lights, waiting for them to change. You’re already 10 minutes late picking up your children from school and are getting more and more anxious as time goes by.

The light changes to green but the person in the car in front doesn’t move and you can see they’re on their phone. You can feel your blood boiling as the road rage sets in. But rather than storm out to the other car, you take a deep breath and calm down. 

Your ability to regulate your emotions wasn’t something you were born with. It’s a learning experience that can take quite a few years to master (and some of us never do!). But it’s also a lesson that can test even the most patient of parents as they try to understand why their child is losing the plot. 

Children begin to understand labels for their own and other people’s emotions when parents and educators talk to them about the feelings that other people express in a variety of situations.
Greg Antcliff

Young children generally have a hard time working out how they’re feeling and how to tell people around them what’s wrong. But generally speaking, children whose early learning experiences have been positive assume their relationships with others will be the same.

Positive experiences work on a child’s brain so they have the skills and confidence to have and enjoy great relationships. Stress and challenging experiences can work in the opposite way and have a negative effect on future relationships. 

Babies actually learn to deal with stress quite early on. They are held and rocked and eventually calm themselves down. As they get older, however, and things aren’t so simple, it gets more difficult to understand what’s going on in the world and how they can deal with certain situations. 

Research shows that starting emotional training at a very young age can have benefits. Findings from the Impact Findings from the Head Start Cares Demonstration show it’s possible to teach children in preschool to manage their feelings and regulate their behaviour. Those improved social and emotional skills can then go on to help them spend more time engaged in learning. 

Researcher Pamela Morris says research shows those children who are encouraged to talk about their emotions, and those who are in positive, happy classrooms, give more competent, positive responses to scenarios and fewer aggressive or disorganised responses. 

Greg Antcliff, Goodstart Early Learning national manager professional practice, says teaching children the ability to recognise and name their own emotions is essential in developing critical competence. 

And the good news for parents is that spending a little bit of extra time with your child can lead to fewer tantrums and a happier day. 

“Children begin to understand labels for their own and other people’s emotions when parents and educators talk to them about the feelings that other people express in a variety of situations,” Greg says. 

He says there are plenty of positive outcomes associated with naming emotions – from an increased ability to regulate their emotions to enjoying better friendships by enhancing their social skills. 

“If parents talk about each person’s inner world of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, children can begin to understand that someone else might feel or think differently to them.”

He says once kids can recognise their own feelings, they can begin to empathise with other people.  “It can also help give kids the language to communicate how they’re feeling, rather than acting out.”

According to the First Five Years' Snapshot of Australian Families survey, sixty-one per cent of parents say if they could ask professionals anonymous parenting questions, the number one topic they would ask about is dealing with difficult behaviour. 

The Three Steps1

Step One

The first step is to encourage children to think about how they’re feeling by saying “it sounds like you’re (angry, upset, happy). Is that right?” Or “I can see by your face that you’re  . . . “

Naming feelings can encourage kids to understand what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling like that.

“If a child doesn’t know what to do when they’re feeling a certain way, parents can suggest ways for them to express their emotions. For example, when you’re feeling angry you can come to me and let me know but you can’t hit someone because you’re frustrated.

“Naming the emotion and then giving them a behaviour model sets them up for social success.”

Step Two

Secondly, talk about emotions in the context of the other kids around them.

Parents can talk to children about what they’re feeling and what others are feeling and expressing during the day.

For example: “You’re smiling. I think you’re happy with that toy” and “Look at Sophie, she’s laughing. I think she’s happy playing with those blocks.”

Step Three

Thirdly, you could create a poster with faces showing different emotions and talk to your child about them. The cards could have expressions such as anger, happiness, joy and disgust.

“These activities open up many opportunities for intentional teaching and purposeful planning to activate children’s emotional language and prosocial expression of emotions,” Greg says.

Emotions by age groups:

Kids aged 2-3 years old

Children will begin to increase understanding and use of language related to emotions and will be beginning to label feelings they see in others. For example “Mummy is happy now.”

Kids aged 4-5 years old

These kids tend to label their own feelings and those of others based on their facial expressions or tone of voice. For example, they might look at a picture in a book and say, “That person looks sad.”

For school-aged kids

Children begin to use more complex language to express their understanding of feelings and their causes. For example “I want to try riding that but I’m a bit scared.”

While you’re teaching your kids to name and regulate their emotions, there will be times when they totally lose it. There’s no doubt that dealing with the tantrums is one of the most challenging aspects of parenthood. But there are a few tips that might help.

Tips for parents managing children who are showing challenging behaviours:

  • If you’re frustrated, take some time to calm down. Be a role model and teach your children how they should act. 
  • Ensure the child is safe from harm. 
  • Once they’re calm, talk to them about how they’re feeling, about their emotions and what they should do if they feel that way again.
  • Name their emotions so they can register the emotion. 
  • Give them the behaviour model to express the emotion. Say “I can see you’re angry and when you’re angry, you can let me know. 
  • Show empathy and understanding. You will do your best job by helping them manage their emotions by being stable and calm. 

1 Practice in Action Guide (PIAG) Acknowledgement – This PIAG was adapted with permission form the Parenting Research Centre and the Benevolent Society from The Benevolent Society’s Resilience Practice Framework: A framework to promote resilience in children and families, Guides, 1 – 6, 2015.
These educational resource guides are based on the original guides in PracticeWise Evidence-Based Services (PWEBS) database, drawn from child and family therapeutic intervention outcomes studies (PracticeWise, 2009), adapted with permission by the Parenting Research Centre and The Benevolent Society.
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