Managing emotions

Primary school kids are still learning to identify emotions, understand why they happen, and how to manage them. As children develop the things that provoke emotional responses change, as do the strategies they use to deal with them.

Some children show a high level of emotional maturity while quite young, whereas others take longer to develop the skills to manage their emotions. This is really normal – everyone develops at different stages and paces.

All children need support from their parents and caregivers to understand their feelings, as well as encouragement to work out ways to manage them – some might just need a bit of extra help to figure things out.

Understanding your child’s feelings

Supporting children’s emotional development starts with paying attention to their feelings and noticing how they manage them. By acknowledging children’s emotional responses and providing guidance, you can help kids understand and accept feelings, and develop effective strategies for managing them.

Tune in to children’s feelings and emotions

Some emotions are easily identified, while others are less obvious. Tuning into children’s emotions involves looking at their body language, listening to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, and observing their behaviour. Figuring out what they’re feeling and why means you can respond more effectively to their needs, and help them develop specific strategies – for example, when we’re feeling nervous, we can try taking big deep breaths.

Validate your child’s emotional experiences 

Listen to what children say and acknowledge their feelings. This helps children to identify emotions and understand how they work. Being supported in this way helps children work out how to manage their emotions. You might say, “You look worried. Is something bothering you?” or “It sounds like you’re really angry. Let’s talk about it.” 

Set limits in a supportive way

Kids need to understand that having a range of emotions and feelings is OK, but there are limits to how feelings should be expressed appropriately. You can set limits, talk about why these exist, and how one person’s feelings shouldn’t make someone else feel upset. For example, “I know you’re upset that your friend couldn’t come over, but that doesn’t make it OK to yell at me.”

View emotions as an opportunity for connecting and teaching

Children’s emotional reactions provide ‘teachable moments’ for helping them understand emotions and learn effective ways to manage them. You might say, “I can see you’re really frustrated about having to wait for what you want. Why don’t we read a story while we’re waiting?” 

Be a role model

Children learn about emotions and how to express them appropriately by watching others – especially parents and other family members. Showing kids the ways you understand and manage emotions helps them learn from your example. If you lose your temper (hey, it happens!), apologise and show how you might make amends.

Encourage problem-solving

Help children develop their skills for managing emotions by encouraging them think of different ways they could respond. You might say, “What would help you feel brave?” or “How else could you look at this?” 

Providing security

Kids are reassured by knowing that a responsible adult is taking care of them and looking after their needs. Parents and other family members can help children manage their emotions by creating a safe and secure environment. Kids need extra support from you when they’re feeling tired, hungry, sad, scared, nervous, excited or frustrated. Regular routines, such as bedtimes and mealtimes, reduce the impact of stress and helps to provide a sense of stability for kids. 

Dealing with stress

Every child is an individual and will approach life and its challenges in completely different ways. By paying attention and listening to your child, you’ll be able to identify their stressors and help them cope. Some common things that cause kids stress are:

  • relationships with friends
  • teasing and bullying at school
  • family relationships – tension with parents and siblings
  • being tired
  • being hungry
  • worrying about world events
  • being stuck inside because of weather.

Helping kids stay calm

Check out these strategies you can use to help your child shift from feeling stressed, anxious or frightened to feeling safe and calm, and ready to move on. 

  • Watch closely. How does your child take in information? How do they seek out social connection and communicate?
  • Respond. Acknowledge their feelings and respond with reassuring words or a hug. Talk about helpful ways of managing feelings and encourage your child to try out different options. Remember that it’s not always easy for kids to know what's bothering them, and they may not always be able to talk about it.
  • Show empathy. Try to see things from your child’s perspective and understand their motives. This helps you to ward off any potential problems and respond quickly and appropriately.
  • Use problem-solving techniques. Talk about the things that are bothering them. Break the problems down together and help your child see the different perspectives and solutions. Find out more about problem-solving
  • Provide structure and predictability. Have age-appropriate routines and limits.
  • Include relaxation breaks in your day. Give stretching, exercise or quiet time a go.
  • Teach by showing. Show kids how you manage your own feelings effectively. Acting calmly will help to reassure your child that they too can manage difficult feelings.

Useful questions to ask yourself:

  • How do you know when your child is feeling overwhelmed or stressed?
  • What do you do to help them become calmer? Does it work?
  • What else could you try?

Getting more support if you need
  • If your child is showing signs of emotional or behavioural difficulties it’s important to seek help early and address any problems before they get worse.
  • Getting support for yourself, through family and friendship networks or your GP, is also very important. This support helps to build your own resilience, so you can care for your kids. 
Complete our child mental health checklist

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