Young children are on a journey of learning how to identify, express and regulate their emotions. While their bodies may be small, their emotions can be quite big. At times, they may seem to be overwhelmed with the big emotions inside their body. Sometimes, when a child is washed over with a big emotion, she may need you to help her find her way through those emotions. Acknowledge, accept and reflect the emotions that your child is having (all feelings—even big ones—are appropriate, all behaviors are not). After you’ve acknowledge your child’s feelings, if the feelings continue to be big, bold and overwhelming, your child may need you to coach her on some self-soothing practices. Help your child find the thing that helps her get back to calm, so that a solution can be found to whatever caused the big feelings.

  1. Write a letter: Sometimes simply writing down your child’s words will help her begin to conquer the big emotion and calm her body. If she is upset that a play date is over and her beloved friend needs to leave, you could say, “I hear from your crying that you are sad that Jorge left. Let’s write him a letter telling him about your feelings and see if that helps you calm down.” Your child might reply “I don’t want him to leave.” Write down her words on the closest piece of paper and repeat her words back to her. “I don’t want him to leave. Do you want to add anything else?” Your child might add a whole string of words that correlate to her feelings. As she uses her words to express those deep emotions, hopefully she will experience that those feelings are starting to get smaller.
  2. Count backwards from 10: When the emotions are high you could say, “Your feelings are so big, let’s count down and see if we can make the feelings get smaller while we count.”
  3. Deep breathing: There is a reason we sigh or take a deep breathe when we get upset. Deep breathing helps us to focus, slows down the heart rate and helps to calm our response system. With a young child, you might pretend to blow up a balloon, blow flower petals in the wind, blow bubbles (for pretend or for real!) or blow out a pretend candle. Whichever technique you use, have your child take a deep breath in through his nose, push out his stomach on the inhale and relax during the exhale. You may say, “Your body seems so upset. Let’s get some deep breaths—can you blow up a big, big balloon?” Then, model the breathing for him and use your hands to form a balloon shape in front of your face. With each deep breathe, he may find himself closer to calm.
  4. Squeezes: Encourage your child to wrap his arms around his body and give himself a big, giant hug. This is a great way for a young child to practice comforting himself. The main character in the children’s book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man by Michael Chabon uses this very technique to calm his body—it just might work for your Awesome Man, too.
  5. Fidgets, stress balls and squeeze toys: Have a basket of things to squeeze, mush and poke! Let your child pick a toy from the basket and squash, crush and press it as hard as she can until those big feels start to feel small.
  6. Calming Place: Have a place in the house where your child can go to bring himself back to calm. It could be a tent, or the space behind the sofa or the floor of a walk-in closet that is filled with soft pillows and stuffed animals. Encourage the child to use the space when big feelings happen. It is important to remember that this calm place isn’t about isolation or punishment; this calm place is a place of assurance and support, where you can be too.
  7. Books about feelings: Outside of those moments when the big feelings come, read books about feelings. Some favorites are When Sophie Get Angry—Really, Really, Angry by Molly Bang, Anh’s Anger by Gail Silver Last, Penguin Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith and The Way I Feel by Janan Cain.
  8. Share your own stories: Children love to hear stories about your childhood. Again, outside of those moments when the big feeling is present, share a story about a time where you were taken over by a big emotion. Talk about your feelings, how you calmed down, and how you eventually solved the problem that bought on the big feeling.
  9. Take a walk: Sometimes we all need a break and a change of scenery. Say to your child, “Let’s go take a walk to…the car in the garage, the mailbox, down to the lobby. Walking might make your big emotions feel small.” Stopping to get a quick drink also can help.
  10. Remember to be aware of your own calm-down strategies.  Our kids learn so much by watching us! In your moments of big emotions do you yell at the cars on the road? Do you slam the kitchen cabinets close? What are your calming techniques? You can even make them explicit; next time you are feeling frustrated you can say, “I’m getting really frustrated because the vacuum won’t work! I’m going to step away from it and take a break. I will come back when I’m not so frustrated.”