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Helping children scope with strong emotions


Big emotions can be frightening. Anxiety, sadness, anger, and a variety of other strong emotions can quickly activate the fight-or-flight response in the body. That is true for adults, but it is especially true for children who are still discovering their emotions and learning to manage them. Now that school has resumed, there may be spillovers of strong emotions at school and home. While each situation, family, and child is unique, the following are a few evidence-based tips for parents to assist children and adolescents in navigating significant emotions.



Discuss your emotions.

To begin, it's beneficial to remember that emotions are natural. We all experience them, from pleasant to stressful. Children benefit from parents discussing emotions because it helps normalize feelings and teaches them that it is acceptable to discuss them with you. Additionally, regular conversations aid in the development of children's emotional competence and self-regulation abilities. This can be as simple as labelling your own emotions as they arise, associating emotional labels with specific physical cues, and discussing potential coping strategies. For instance, you could inform your child, "When I'm worried, I notice that my muscles and voice tremble. I've discovered that practising paced breathing and engaging in a grounding activity helps me feel better. Are you interested in practising with me?"

Try grounding.

Children and parents can experiment with a variety of coping strategies to assist in managing difficult emotions. Paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two techniques that can be beneficial for calming the fight-or-flight response that may occur in response to strong emotions.

At times, emotions are irrational and extremely difficult to manage. Grounding is an effective tool for assisting children in remaining focused on the present moment and creating some distance from distressing thoughts during these times. Physical grounding strategies entail focusing on one's senses or surroundings, such as on the sensation of their breath during a breathing exercise or the soles of their feet while walking. Another popular option is "5-4-3-2-1," in which you list five visible objects, four tactile objects, three audible objects, two odour objects, and one taste object. Alternatively, you could assign a colour to each digit.


Drop anchor

Another strategy that can assist children in learning to manage overwhelming emotions is anchoring. As the name implies, this strategy is based on visualizing oneself dropping an anchor and re-establishing one's connection to the present moment. Anchoring strategies come in a variety of flavours. Parents may wish to try the following guided practice:

To begin, acknowledge that your child is experiencing difficult emotions: "I recognize this is difficult, and if you permit me, I would like to assist you." Then ask your child to visualize himself or herself dropping an anchor.

Assist your child in planting their feet on the floor.

Instruct them to straighten their spines and pay attention to their backs.

Continue guiding your child back to the ground by engaging their other senses, such as focusing on their breath expanding their lungs or the sensation of their shoulders rolling.

Recognize the presence of the strong emotion and reflect on their ability to move their body and maintain self-control in its presence. For instance, "I see you're enraged. Take note that you have a body surrounding this emotion. One in which you flexed and moved." Prompt them to continue using any of the above-mentioned grounding techniques — whichever strategy is most beneficial to them.

It's also a good idea to remind them that you're here to help them: "Remember, I'm here to help you, and we're a team."

Bear in mind that anchoring is not intended to make the emotion vanish instantly. Rather than that, it can assist a person in riding out an emotional storm in a calm manner, avoiding being carried away by the emotion.


Put these new skills to the test

Finally, I like to emphasize to the children and parents with whom I work that "practice makes perfect." While perfection is exceedingly rare, repeated practice helps train the brain to acquire new abilities. Because learning is easier in calm moments, consider setting aside a regular time each day to practice self-regulation strategies. Guided mindfulness-based practices geared toward children, such as those available on Headspace, Calm, or Smiling Mind, can help make this lots of fun and easy. With your assistance, your child will develop self-regulation skills that promote resilience during times of stress.

6 comments

  1. This is excellent advice and easy to follow through without getting overly stressed.
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  2. this is an important topic. great text.

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