Helping Children To Manage Difficult Feelings

Children and teenagers have a huge amount of demands and pressures to deal with from quite a young age. They are expected to manage an array of feelings day to day, with brain architecture designed to support emotion regulation only fully developing within teenage years. So how are we helping or guiding children to manage their feelings? How do you yourself manage difficult feelings? You might list a number of strategies you have learnt work for you over the years. Perhaps a few deep breaths, perhaps space to yourself or talking with someone over a cup of tea. For children, they may not have found what works for them yet, and may have less opportunity and autonomy to give different things a go. They will first look to you to see how you manage; children learn most from watching adults around them. However, with something as intangible as this, it is difficult to observe. We do a lot internally which is hard for children to learn from; we may have a bit of a mantra in mind, we may be organising our thoughts, or simply trying to calm our physiological reactions. So what can you be doing to help them learn what works for them?

  • Children learn a huge amount from early experiences of being soothed. This supports the development of a well-regulated nervous system. Being soothed by those around them forms the basis of learning to soothe themselves.
  • From a young age, you will naturally be labelling children’s feelings and in doing so, will be helping them to make links between situations, feelings, physiological reactions and responses. This ability of a parent to ‘mentalise’ what might be going on for their child, is paramount in supporting children to develop their own level of insight.
  • Ensure this explicit process of labelling feelings continues, supporting them to reflect on situations as they arise. An ability to know your own mind and have some insight into what might be going for someone else, is a significant asset in managing tough situations, and associated feelings.
  • Keep an eye out for cues as to how your child might be feeling. Hold in mind that sometimes, feelings seemingly expressed on the surface, are not always an accurate reflection of their underlying state.
  • Listen! And let them know you are listening. Check out your understanding of what they are saying, offering tentative ideas as to feelings and links if needed.
  • One key step we can easily miss is validating how your child is feeling. As adults, we can often be tempted to skip to the ‘problem-solving’ phase. For children to know that you are interested and understand their perception of events and feelings, can be highly supportive and calming in itself.  This step needs to happen before attempting to ‘fix the problem’.
  • Some children, particularly young children, really struggle to manage overwhelming feelings and can quickly become dysregulated. In these moments, they may need to look to you to help them calm down and re-engage their ‘thinking brain’. In these moments, it is helpful to focus your efforts on calming them, rather than on trying to manage or control their behaviour. Once their arousal levels drop, they will be more amenable to any discipline measures, thinking or learning which needs to take place.
  • To support them in calming down, the following may be useful strategies to try:

- Hugs, comfort, making soothing noises or letting them know you ‘get it’. Even if you feel quite differently or have a very different perspective, it can always be helpful to validate that for them in that moment, feeling like they do is not a pleasant feeling.  Even when they do not invite empathy, perhaps while they are expressing anger and even aggression, try to hold in mind times when you have felt out of control; what do you need from others in that moment? Certainly not frustration and exasperated urges to calm down!

- Time, and for older children, perhaps space. For some children, once they have hit a peak, it is simply a case of riding the wave until their arousal levels naturally drop back down. In these circumstances, be on stand-by to offer them a ‘get-out’ to patch things up and move on.

- For some children, it can be helpful to offer them several options to try out. Chill-out boxes can be a handy way of giving them a small number of options to practice. These boxes can include fiddle toys, soothing activities such as balloons to blow up or Play-doh to squeeze, sensory toys, comforting items such as a teddy to hug, or index cards with different ideas on them. These index cards can give ideas from having a hot drink, to doing 10 star jumps, or practising a yoga move.

- Mindfulness for children has developed significantly over recent years with some schemes being introduced within school. There are scripts and resources for children online or in print (e.g. Sitting still like a frog by Eline Snel).

- Deep breathing has also been shown to be very helpful for children. This can be incorporated into child-friendly games such as pretending to blow out birthday candles, or seeing who can blow their breath out the slowest and longest. Singing is a brilliant way of calming children down; you have to breath more deeply and slowly to sing.

- Exercise can be incredibly helpful in building children’s resilience and well-being day to day, as well as giving them a healthy outlet for difficult feelings.

  • Once calm, and only once calm, support them to break down the sequence of thoughts, behaviours or events which culminated in such difficult feelings. Break it down with them and talk it through, ensuring they have labels for how they might have been feeling, and are able to make links between their perception of events and how they felt.
  • Once calm, and reflection and repairs have taken place, it might be helpful to make a plan for next time. This might involve coming up with one of two different things to try next time; either to avoid things becoming so fragile, or to test a new way of expressing or managing tricky feelings.
  • If you are finding your child is struggling with difficult feelings in particular circumstances on a recurring basis, it may be worth thinking about whether they are developmentally mature enough to manage the expectations on them in that environment or situation. Children develop at very different rates across different skill sets. Consider whether the level of structure, support and supervision they have is in keeping with what they might need. If they are struggling, it may be a sign they might need more.

If this is an area your child struggles with, it may be that further support could be helpful. It can be easy to find yourself in knots once your child is struggling with overwhelming feelings which have an impact on the whole family. Child and family based support is available through Peterkin Psychology. A thorough assessment will help ascertain what sort of support might be useful to get your child back on track. For more information contact