Being able to manage our own emotions seems like a simple task at first glance, but it’s actually quite complex, especially for growing children and teenagers. It involves understanding your feelings, managing stress, using coping strategies at the appropriate times, problem-solving through challenges, and knowing when to ask for help. This can be a lot for growing children and teens. They don’t always know exactly how to manage those feelings, which is why it is so critical for adults to provide support along the way.
Big Emotions, Big Behaviors
Anger, worry, fear, shame, frustration, embarrassment, confusion, and even excitement. These are just a few big feelings that children and teens might need to cope with on any given day.
One important point to make is that when a child is struggling, we usually don’t see the emotion at first. We see the challenging behaviors. This might include acting in aggressive ways such as yelling, pushing, kicking, biting, or destroying property. Other times this might look like work refusal, avoidance, and doing the opposite of the directions given. We might also see withdrawal or irritability. These are just a few examples, as children and teens can behave in various ways when struggling with emotions. Always keep in mind that emotions are often the driving force behind behaviors.
A child or teen most likely isn’t going to say, “Excuse me, I’m struggling with my feelings right now.” They might act out, though. It just happens to mean the same thing. When we see children and teens acting out in negative ways, this should be a cue that they need some support.
Teach Skills When Calm
All kids and teens are going to struggle with managing emotions from time to time. It’s normal and healthy. With that said, some kids are going to need a bit more support than others. If working with learners who continually struggle in this area, consider teaching some of the skills for managing emotions just as you would skills for learning math or reading. Kids and teens can learn how to understand their emotions, check in with themselves, use coping strategies, practice flexible thinking, using self-control, and appropriately deal with emotions. Remember to teach these skills proactively when kids are calm.
Simple Strategies In the Moment
All educators of kids (big and little) need strategies for helping them manage emotions in the moment. And while I’m a huge advocate for teaching coping strategies and skills to children themselves well ahead of time, these techniques are really designed for adults to use while a child is struggling.
This article also puts an emphasis on simple strategies because in any given fast-paced day, it’s important to have to-the-point techniques in our toolbox that work. What’s most helpful in this list of techniques is that they are truly universal; these are strategies that can be used with children in preschool to high schoolers (and yes, even adults).
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping kids manage tough emotions, which is why it’s important to have a few ready for when something doesn’t work.
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Here are six simple techniques for helping children and teens manage their emotions:
The most important technique when a child or teen is struggling with emotions is to actively listen to them. This means giving distraction-free attention to a child and really hearing them out. It helps to remain judgement free while a child or teen is expressing their emotions. Try to avoid taking over the conversation. Instead, ask prompting questions that might help them share more information about how they are feeling and what they need. Sometimes, this can take a while, but if you chat long enough, valuable information is almost always given.
Beyond all of that, sometimes someone just need to be heard. A few prompts for starting the conversation might include:
- “What’s going on?”
- “I noticed you’re struggling with ______ today. What’s up?”
- “Talk to me. How are you feeling?”
- “Let’s chat.”
- “How would you rate how you’re feeling from 0-10?”
Co-regulation is the process of actually sitting with kids and teens to calm down together. It’s most helpful if these strategies and techniques have already been practiced ahead of time. This is just because of how the brain works. When kids and teens are overwhelmed, they don’t think as clearly. It’s difficult for them to pick up a new coping skill on the fly. If we want them to use these strategies when they truly are overwhelmed, we need to teach them before.
Even so, sometimes in the moment it can be difficult to embrace the idea of calming strategies. This is why co-regulation can be so powerful. Adults are modeling the skills they want kids and teens to do.
You can start by offering or suggesting a strategy. For example, you might say, “Let’s take a few minutes and color together.” Another idea is to offer a choice between two activities. If neither of those seem to work, just choose a calm down strategy and do it on your own near the child. Quite often, the learner will pick it up and try too.
Here are a few coping strategies that might work best:
- Coloring or drawing
- Reading a book or magazine
- Reading positive self-talk statements
- Practicing mindfulness
- Journal writing
- Organizing something
- Doing a puzzle
- Mindful breathing
- Mindful journaling
These are just a few of many different coping strategies you can try. Use a coping strategies list to read more and give them a try.
#3 Give Space
One of the most under-utilized supports for helping manage emotions is giving space. An overwhelmed child can sometimes become more overwhelmed without the time and space they need to get back on track. Give supports, but it’s also okay to walk away. Some helpful phrases to give some space include:
- “I’m here when you need me.”
- “If you want to talk about that later, let me know, and I’ll be here to listen.”
- “Let’s talk about that later.”
- “Take a break and I’ll check back in with you in a few minutes, okay?”
Sometimes children and teens need mental space from the challenges they are coping with. A quick distraction can provide that. Here are some ways to help distract a child or teen in the moment:
- Have the child help with a task. Keeping busy can help kids and teens reset their minds. The task doesn’t need to be “fun,” but it’s best if it’s not challenging. For example, ask if they can help you put up some bulletin board pieces or if they can deliver a note to another teacher down the hall.
- Ask about a pet or loved one. The people and pets we love are comforting. You might ask about how a child’s dog is doing to set them on a better frame on mind.
- Tell a funny story from your own life. Kids and teens loving hearing stories from trusted adults. The story doesn’t need to be connected to how the child is feeling at all. It’s just a quick distraction. Anything to get a laugh is best! I personally loved telling stories about my dog, Nova. Just as an example, the time Nova growled at a snowman was always a favorite.
- Ask questions about a favorite hobby or activity. We all experience positive emotions when we talk about our favorite activities. Use that to your advantage when helping a child manage emotions by asking about some of those hobbies. If a teen loves hockey, ask how his team has been doing. If a child loves music, talk about their favorite songs or band.
- Ask a riddle or brainteaser. Consider giving a small brain game to help provide a distraction. Again, this technique will not work for every child, but some kids and teens thrive on puzzles and figuring things out.
- Play a game. When all else fails, offer to play a game together. While this strategy cannot be done in every setting or in every situation, sometimes it’s important tool to have ready. So often, kids will begin talking and externalizing their emotions during a game. So, sometimes it’s worth a try.
#5 Draw or Write
Not all children and teenagers are capable of verbalizing how they are feeling and what they need. This is where drawing and writing come into play. These different methods give kids a chance to share those emotions in a non-threatening way.
Some strategies to help kids express feelings in this way include:
- Write a letter about how they are feeling.
- Draw a picture that shows their emotions.
- List out all the feelings they feel.
- Give free journal writing time.
- Journal or draw to music.
When a child or teen is calm, one of the most powerful ways to help them manage emotions is through problem-solving. When problem-solving, it’s important to not solve for kids but with them. It is critical that kids and teens know they have the power to solve their own problems, even if they need help sometimes.
Some ways to problem-solve together include:
- Come up with a list of possible solutions.
- Draw a picture of the perfect way to solve the problem.
- Act out different ways to solve the problem.
Teaching Coping Skills
If you’re ready for the next steps in teaching techniques to students, give some of these coping strategies and calm down resources and activities a try.