Can you remember the last time you felt really frustrated or sad? What techniques or skills did you use to manage your emotions?

Just like adults, children need to develop strategies for managing their emotions. Many times, toddlers and young children will bite or hit out of frustration, or have a hard time calming down after an exciting day. It is a parent’s responsibility to teach them the skills needed to identify and express their feelings. Although aggressive behaviors in young children may be challenging for parents, these situations are a great learning opportunity for them to identify and express their emotions!

Research has shown the benefits that result from teaching emotional intelligence from a very young age. According to various studies, young children who participate in social-emotional skills programs show less aggression and anxiety, and become better at solving social problems. Not only do these outcomes provide a more peaceful environment for everyone, but also the benefits endure through the years! In fact, regulating emotions and not reacting in impulsive or hurtful ways is now recognized as a critical factor in children’s psychological health.

One thing is certain, we are not looking to change a particular feeling, we don’t want children to think that a feeling is “bad”, instead we want them not to be overwhelmed by it. In other words, if your daughter feels discouraged, encourage her to not give up; or if she feels anxious, talk it through with her so that she does not end up missing out on an adventure!

Overall, improved emotion regulation leads to benefits in all areas of a child’s life. Children who are able to regulate their emotions, pay more attention, achieve more in school, are better able to solve conflicts with their peers, and show lower levels of stress!

If you want to help your little one regulate her emotions, here are few things you can do:

1. Name emotions

Toddlers and young children have limited language skills, but parents can pay attention to their behaviors –be it yelling, pushing, crying, biting, or withdrawing. The behaviors they show are of great insight to know what they are feeling, then parents can help them put a name to it. When your child experiences an emotion, name it. For example: “You are happy! I can see you’re happy to be at the park”.

As children grow, you can use this strategy to introduce new words that will build their emotional vocabulary: “You look startled. That thunder was really loud”.

2. Plan for strong feelings

Help your little one manage intense feelings by creating coping strategies!

Start by not classifying her emotions as good or bad; instead, neutralize her response to strong emotions. If you tell your child what to feel and that differs from what they are actually feeling, they will begin to feel confused about their own feelings and stop trusting their internal signs! So let her know that everyone reacts and feels angry, sad, or scared at some point in time, emphasize that it happens to everyone, even yourself. After your little one has calmed down, summarize what happened and incorporate her emotions into the dialogue. 

3. Use playtime to identify emotions

When your child struggles with aggressive behavior, help her verbalize what she can and cannot do. A great way to do this is through play! Play is a natural way for children to experience, explore, and talk about various emotions. A simple way to do this is to use stuffed animals or dolls to act out some scenarios your child can relate to. These games are a great tool to model emotional regulation!

4. Reading time

If you want to teach your child about emotional literacy and empathy, use books with pictures. When a happy, scary, or frustrating event occurs in a story, pause and look at the picture together. Examine the characters’ facial expressions, their body language, and what they are doing. Use this same technique when you watch a movie together, for example, when you see someone smiling, say “She must be happy” and continue with other expressions.

5. Recognizing other people’s feelings

Learning to empathize with others and respond appropriately to another person’s feelings is an important skill when building relationships. Similar to the strategies mentioned above, you can start by showing pictures and drawings or role-play situations to discuss the words, body language, and experiences that portray a person’s feelings.

Remember that knowing how to regulate and identify emotions is a very important skill to cultivate. As psychologist Daniel Goleman once said, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far”.