Teaching Children to Manage Big Emotions - Unhurried Mom
Cranky Toddler

Teaching Children to Manage Big Emotions

Emotional regulation is a big focus in our home. Is that weird? Maybe it’s just that we have more mood swings  *ahem* fluctuating emotions in our home than some. At any rate, I personally believe that teaching your children to regulate their own emotions at a young age is a huge asset to them life long. 

What does teaching children to regulate their own emotions actually mean?

“Emotional regulation” is such a professional sounding term, but it’s actually a simple concept. It means being able to…

1) Recognize and name your emotions in the moment 

2) Identify why you are feeling that way

3) Identify what you need to do in order to come back to a sense of equilibrium and calm 

Our kids learn how to manage their emotions by watching how we manage our own emotions. Ouch. That’s convicting.  

Total transparency here – there was a season not too long ago where I started hearing my bigger kids say things to each other like “come here NOW” in that growly-voice, gritted-teeth sort of way. 

Mmmm. I wonder where they heard that from. Certainly not me…. 

Don’t you love it when you see your kids mirror things you know they learned from you and it is just downright ugly? 

Unfortunately it’s the truth. They will copy what they see you do. If you lose your cool every time something doesn’t go your way, they will lose their cool every time something doesn’t go their way. We have to be the adults that we want our children to grow up to be. 

That being said, see this post about practical ways to improve your own emotional regulation. 

What does teaching children to regulate their own emotions actually look like?

Toddler Temper Tantrum

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The Engine Plate

If you don’t know who Karyn Purvis is, you are missing out. She was an amazing woman who did years of research on parenting children from hard places, and developed a model of parenting called Trust Based Relational Intervention.  I HIGHLY recommend that you read her book The Connected Child. It is an excellent resource for anyone parenting a biological, adopted, or foster child, as well as anyone who works with children in a classroom or church setting. 

Karyn Purvis used a tool called the engine plate to teach children about emotional regulation. You can teach your children that just like the gauges on the dashboard of a car provides an indication for the driver to know that it needs something before it becomes a big issue, our own bodies give us warning signals that let us know it needs something before it turns into a big issue (i.e. usually a meltdown or tantrum for kids).

We have to learn to recognize our body’s warning signals, and learn how to figure out what it needs so that we can meet our own need before we get to the point of being completely dysregulated. 

You can easily have each child make their own engine plate out of a paper plate.  Sit and make one for yourself while they make theirs. While you color together, you can talk about the different colors and what each one represents. 

When we’re in the green we feel….

  • Good
  • Happy
  • Calm
  • Content

The green signals that we are good to go. The goal is to stay in the green as much as possible.

When we’re in the blue we feel…

  • Sad
  • Sleepy
  • Down
  • Upset

Finding that we’re in the blue may be a signal that we’ve been sitting for too long and we need to get up and run around a little bit to wake us up and get our blood pumping again. Or it may indicate that we need to talk to someone else, like a grownup, about our feelings. 

When we’re in the red we feel…

  • Mad
  • Angry
  • Hyper
  • Overstimulated

It may be a signal that we need to take a break from what we are doing and find a quiet place. It may mean that we need to get a snack, some water, or take a rest. 

Notes about teaching children to regulate their own emotions by using the engine plate…

Using the lingo above may be over your child’s head at first. You can either choose to simplify it so that it’s on their level, or you can go ahead and use it and provide more examples to illustrate what you mean.

Once you’ve made your engine plates and conveyed the basic concept to your children, you can use games and books to provide more opportunities for teaching emotional regulation skills.

Introduce healthy ways to get back to the green.

If we are in the BLUE we can…

  • Ask a grownup for a snack or a drink
  • Get up and do a little dance
  • Do some jumping jacks
  • Talk to a grown up about how we are feeling 

If we are in the RED we can…

  • Create a calm-down place where we can go to take deep breaths and calm down
  • Ask a grownup for a snack or a drink 
  • Use pressure to provide proprioceptive input which creates a calming effect
  • Listen to music 
  • Count to 10 and do deep breathing
teaching children to regulate their own emotions

Children’s Books

Below are some children’s books that we read with our engine plates in hand.  As we read through each book we paused to identify how the main character’s engine was running. We would identify what color they were on, and what things gave us clues of how their engine was running. We would talk about suggestions of what the main character might need to get their engine back to green. 

Llama Llama Mad at Mama

Pete the Cat and his Magic Sunglasses 

Grumpy Bird 

Calm Down Time – This book is not a fiction book, but it does help teach emotional regulation in a way that even very young children can understand. 

Movie Night

The week that we introduced this concept to the kids, we planned a movie night where we made “feelings pizza” (aka pizza with faces made out of toppings) and watched the movie Inside Out. I love that movie, and it provides really great opportunities to talk about the role of emotions and the purpose that they serve. 

What teaching children to regulate their own emotions looks like in real life with real kids…

The reality is that children are not born with an innate understanding of how to identify and respond appropriately to their own emotions. Your role as the adult is to help them learn how to identify and respond to their own emotions by modeling this out loud for them over and over again. As they get older, this process will become an internal habit because you have taught them to do it from the time that they were knee high.

Do not expect your four year old to say “Mother, I am feeling a little dysregulated right now because I am too hungry and my blood sugar level has dropped. May I please have a snack and something to drink?”

Pshhh. Please. 

This is the real life application of how this process looks in our home after working on this for at least a year.  We regularly evaluate what color we are in and ask ourselves what we need to get back to the green. When I can tell that my kids are starting to become unglued I ask “what color are you on?” If they need help, I help them to identify it. I ask them what they need me to do to help them get back to the green. My oldest is now getting to the point where he can identify what he needs in order to get back to the green, but most of the time I list several suggestions of things that I can do to help them get back to the green and allow them to pick the one that sounds the best to them. This process is called co-regulating if you want to get technical and all. 

Here’s my crowning moment of success with it… 

I took all three of my kids (ages four and under at the time) to a public swimming pool. It was crowded. 

It was loud.

It was bright. 

It was hot. 

And it was stressful. None of my kids can swim without a life jacket or puddle jumper so I was on high alert the whole time we were there. 

Yes, I may be crazy. 

After about an hour I recognized that I had hit my limit of how long I could manage that level of sensory stimuli while simultaneously monitoring my own children vigilantly so I told my kids that it was time to go. As we were walking to the car my four year old was beginning to have a meltdown.  

I’m not going to lie – on a different day when I didn’t have my wits about me I could have easily said “Stop whining. We do not act like that in this family. Be grateful that we went to the pool at all.”…. and it most certainly would have led him right into a melt down. Since I was hot, tired, and overstimulated too it would have pushed my buttons even more and made me feel irritable. I would have driven home from the pool with him still crying and whimpering in the back seat, and me muttering in the front seat about how something that was supposed to be fun ended up being so stressful instead and why can’t they just be grateful, etc, etc. 

But that day was one of my rockstar mom days and I had the presence of mind to ask him what color he was in.

I looked at him and said “What color are you?” 

He said “I’m in the red.” 

I said “What do you need?”  

He said “I’m hot and I need a snack and a drink.” 

We were walking on a sidewalk right next to a grassy field so I said “okay, let’s sit down here and have a picnic snack.” We spread our towels out in the shade and got snacks, drinks, and regulated again. The kids thought it was the best thing ever, and I did too. All of our needs were met. We weren’t leaving the pool because we needed to get home – we were leaving the pool because I had met my limit of the amount of time I could sanely supervise them in that environment. There was no reason we couldn’t sit and have an impromptu snack picnic outside of the pool gates, though. This allowed us to all continue to enjoy our afternoon of fun while making sure we all had what we needed to be in the green. 

Once we both identified that he had a need that could easily be met, we were able to meet that need together and enjoy the rest of our afternoon. It modeled good emotional regulation, AND increased our sense of connection in that moment.  The whole course of the afternoon went better because we took a moment to do an emotional check in and found a solution that would meet all of our needs. 

Teaching children how to regulate their own emotions takes time. It takes being intentional. It takes modeling it yourself (even when you feel like screaming). But the gift that you are giving your child by teaching this to them at an early age is invaluable. It’s not an easy task, but (as my husband likes to say) YOU GOT THIS. 

P.S. Before you go…

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