Helping Kids Regulate Their Emotions

Adults need to be ready to be bigger than their child’s big emotions


By Sinay Butler, Counselor at Dragonfly Wellness & Education Center

Children often have a hard time understanding their feelings. Sometimes they lack the words to express how they’re feeling. Sometimes they think a particular emotion they are having now will be long lasting. Helping children learn to manage their emotions is an important part of growing up. Sometimes adults have a hard time managing their emotions too, and they expect children to be able to act in ways they aren’t very good at themselves.

Let them know it’s okay to have feelings.
One thing that is helpful is to let kids know that it is okay to express their emotions. It is our job as adults to be bigger than their “big” feelings. This helps kids feel safe. If adults get pulled into a child’s feelings, who is going to be safe? Before we can help kids regulate, we must be aware of our own internal world. We have to make sure that we are regulated and able to provide them with the safe and secure environment they need.

First be calm.
Before engaging with a dysregulated child, adults should take these steps:
Stop, identify and label your own emotions, i.e., “I am feeling frustrated.” “I am feeling anxious.” “I am feeling angry.”

Do some deep breathing exercises.

  • Take a deep breath, counting to four as you inhale through your nose.
  • Hold the breath for a count of four.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of four.
  • Hold for the count of four before taking your next breath.

Encourage yourself. “This might be hard (take a slow breath), but I can do this!”

Repeat if necessary, making sure you are calm before engaging with the child.

What is my child communicating?
One of the phrases we use in working with children is this reminder, “All behavior is communication.” If our child is having a tantrum, if they are being disobedient, they misbehave. We need to remember this phrase. What are they communicating? Recognize that the child is expressing a need. Identify that need if possible. If we see that our child is communicating with us through behavior, we can shift our emotions from feeling disrespected or challenged, into one of curiosity. Of course, misbehavior has consequences, but finding out what is the reason behind the behavior is important to modifying behavior.

Remain calm with their “big” feelings.

When a child is having big feelings, i.e., crying, having a tantrum, feeling angry, or sullen, it is important that parents deal with the child calmly. Again, we need to stay bigger than their big feelings. When you approach the child, calmly, say their name and take a long, slow breath. After practicing this repeatedly, over time they will take a breath with you. Then, identify and label their emotion “You are really angry.” Say it with compassion and recognition. Everyone wants to be seen. Take another breath. Express empathy, “I know. This is hard.” “It is hard to share.” “You miss your mom, and that is hard.”  Take another breath.

Offer affirmation.

Encourage the child by offering affirmation “You got this!” “I know you can do this” “You are doing such a great job of breathing with me” “You are working so hard on being calm.”
With consistent practice, your child will learn to take breaths on their own when they are feeling upset. So will you!

Other concepts to keep in mind:
Kids (and some adults) don’t understand that feelings are transitory. We need to remind kids that they won’t always feel this way, and that they have the power to move through the feelings.
We need to remember that all behavior is communication. Usually it involves a need. Adults need to ask, what is the need? Kids don’t get dysregulated for no reason. We may not understand the reason, but it is a “big” feeling for them! We need to be adults. We need to be bigger than their “big” feelings. We must be aware of our own needs and feelings so that we can help – and not contribute to – the child’s needs and feelings.

In a nutshell:

  • Self-awareness and regulation
  • Breathe
  • Identify and label the child’s feelings (“You are mad!”)
  • Breathe
  • Express empathy (“This is hard!”)
  • Affirm their ability to handle it. (“You’ve got this!”)

Dealing with little people who have big feelings can be very stressful. Most children do not enjoy feeling upset any more than we enjoy seeing them upset. When we create an environment of safety and acceptance by managing our own emotions, we can better help our children manage theirs. Dragonfly Wellness and Education Center offers life coaches and parent training that can help you parent in a more positive way. Call (509) 724-0221 or visit our website at for more information.