Like adults, children have up and downs, and times when they feel overwhelmed or out of control. Due to their age, having less experiences and time to develop skills in managing feelings, children need adult’s help in managing their emotions as they grow and develop.
When adults respond to children’s cues and help them manage their feelings of uncertainty, helplessness, or being overwhelmed, children feel safe and trust that there is someone there to help them when they need it. With experiences of warm, responsive and trusting adults, children can gradually learn to manage their emotions for themselves.
What are the benefits of supporting children in managing their emotions?
- children who feel calm and safe are more able to maintain focus and attention, which is central to their overall development
- helping children manage their emotions increases their feelings of confidence and self-worth, and minimises stress
- when children have repeated experiences of having their needs met by a responsive and caring adult, it can help them develop a positive sense of self, manage their emotions and to get along with others
- when children have these experiences, they are more likely to be mentally healthy and have good relationships with others
- supporting children to manage their emotions contributes to their feelings of satisfaction, happiness and overall success in life
When parents and carers provide warm, trusting and responsive care towards children, it enables them to respond with appropriate emotions and behaviour, internalise a positive view of themselves and develop an understanding concern for others.
Children become more independent in managing their emotions across more situations over time; however, it is important to acknowledge that turning to others for guidance and support, especially in times of stress, remains an important coping skill throughout life. Children might need extra support in times of change and transition, when they have fears and worries, when they are feeling upset, sad or angry, or after experiences of trauma.
Maintaining feelings of safety, calm and optimism
Helping children manage their emotions involves creating and maintaining feelings of safety, calm and optimism. This can often mean helping a child to move from a negative state where they may feel stressed, anxious, angry or frightened into a positive state where they feel safe and calm and ready to move on. This involves lowering the child’s ‘stress’ hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline), and increasing their ‘feel good’ hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin). This helps keep them balanced, maintain regularity, manage memory and attention, increase feelings of trust, develop social skills and empathy for others, reduce fear and feel pleasure.
Parents and carers can help children manage their emotions by being calm, warm and providing children with safety and security. Parents and carers can convey warmth, caring, and security by:
- demonstrating interest in the child through eye contact, and actively listening to children and responding in a timely manner
- using open-ended questions, where appropriate, which enables the child to express their feelings (e.g. “What are you worried about when you go to school?”)
- reflecting in your own words what you understand the child has said and their experience (e.g. “You seem to be feeling a bit upset about not making the netball team”)
- being at the same physical level so the child feels more comfortable, and being close to the child, with no things or other people between you
- having an open, relaxed body posture, and a positive facial expression
- speaking in a soft to normal volume, using a normal to low pitch and a slow, even tempo.
Positive touch helps children manage their emotions
Another helpful way to convey warmth, caring and security and help children manage their emotions is through positive touch. This includes physical gestures such as hugging, cuddling or gently patting children in a respectful and appropriate way. Positive touch is beneficial across the lifespan and helps show positive emotions to the child, for example, "I understand that you are feeling sad right now". It is beneficial for children’s development of a separate sense of self, capacity to receive and give nurturing touch experiences, is an important factor in developing close relationships with others and can even reduce stress and release feel good emotions.
Most babies and toddlers, and some older children, benefit from cuddles and hugs, but older children may prefer gentle touches to their arms, shoulder, head or back or a simple ‘high five’. Some children might not enjoy being touched, and children will have their own preferences, so it is important in this case for parents and carers to find other ways to connect.
Circle of Security - an early intervention program that emphasises children’s need for parents and carers to help organise children’s internal experiences and feelings, particularly when they are too overwhelming for children to cope with on their own. The program emphasises the crucial role of parents and carers in providing support for children’s exploration, as well as being a safe haven for children when they are tired, upset or overwhelmed.