As a child, I had no idea how to self-regulate or manage my feelings. At all. During my formative years, I was routinely sent to my room to get over my bad attitude (angry feelings) more than I care to admit. If only someone had explained to me at an earlier age that we all have feelings and that all feelings are okay, that our job isn’t as much to monitor which feeling might choose us as it is how to manage our responses to that feeling, I wouldn’t have had to seclude myself in that sanctuary so often, trapped trying to figure out the key to emotional regulation all by myself.
Since something like emotional literacy is too important to leave to chance, we simply must be intentional about teaching it to our children. But whose job IS that?
If you subscribe to the African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” then you know that it actually falls to all of us.
The first and most powerful way to teach emotional regulation is to model it; consider this Dorothy Law Nolte wisdom, “Children learn what they live.” Full disclosure: I grew up in the home of a father who got very quiet when his feelings got uncomfortable and a mother who stuffed all of her emotions down until they boiled over like a volcano, spewing lava on everything and everybody in the path. Needless to say, it followed that I was a hot mess when it came to emotions. When we get quiet because of uncomfortable feelings, children learn to handle their conflicted feelings with the silent treatment. Conversely, when we yell at children because we’re angry, guess what those children learn? To deal with their anger by yelling. Additionally, when we beat ourselves up for what we’re feeling, our children learn to berate themselves for what they’re feeling. A much healthier strategy is to stay in the moment with your feelings. Honor them. Appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel them. You could even try thanking the feelings, for choosing you. Resist the urge to judge them as good or bad, positive or negative. Just know that when a feeling chooses you, it’s important to be with that feeling and to respond to it in a healthy way.
Beyond modeling, we need to intentionally teach feelings vocabulary to help students express themselves adequately. Talk through words like angry, mad, sad, glad, happy, scared, afraid, confused, frustrated, embarrassed, hopeful, proud, excited, playful, lonely. Pair feeling words with what a face looks like when it’s experiencing that emotion. Use a mirror to help children see how the feeling is expressed in their eyes, on their foreheads, on their cheeks, on their mouth, on their jaw. Encourage them to observe others, paying special attention to their affect, how they show their feelings. Point out how people might be feeling: “That child is crying; maybe she is feeling scared.” Ask how people might be feeling: “I wonder how the boy who lost his puppy is feeling?” This will open up a conversation to increase emotional literacy while you model empathy and compassion.
Once the children know, understand, and embrace their feelings, help them live out these three Ms of emotional regulation:
Monitor them: It’s important that we, young and old alike, stay in touch with our feelings – big and small, easy and hard, comfortable and uncomfortable – and validate them in ourselves and others. We can choose to work with intention to monitor how we’re feeling in every moment, day in and day out. And it helps to know that feelings can change; something that made me happy yesterday might not invoke the same reaction today. It starts with teaching our children about the feelings and pairing the feelings word with how our bodies might respond physically. Anger, for example, might show up as red cheeks, a furrowed brow, clenched fists, an increased heart rate. Encourage students to figure out what the triggers are that might heighten these emotions in them. How can they tell when they’re feeling sad? What has their experience with sadness been? How can they be in the moment with their sad feelings, even though there might be a perception that sad is bad?
Move through them: As they recognize that a certain feeling is about to choose them, it’s critical that they move through it rather than going around it. A good first step is naming it and claiming it. Try saying it out loud: I feel really sad today. Or I’m starting to feel angry. As soon as they identify the feeling, they’re going to be able to employ their strategies for moving through the emotion. An uncomfortable emotion might pass quickly, but it’s possible that it will linger for a bit, so it’s important to have self-awareness about what it’s going to take to move through it with grit and grace.
Try these suggestions to help children move through their emotions:
Talk it out. Encourage children to talk through their feelings with a trusted mentor, family member or friend. Listen carefully to what the children are saying as well as what they’re not saying. Behavior often does the talking for our younger learners. Help them understand the feelings behind their actions.
Tap it out. Have you heard about the technique of therapeutic Tapping? Since every feeling begins with a thought, this technique can help unlock those thoughts that keep us stressed, from feeling safe, by helping calm the amygdala.
Strum it out. Music is an incredible outlet for feelings management. Try strumming your worries or hard feelings away on a ukulele or guitar. Or grab something to drum on and beat out some rhythms until you’re back to baseline. Pound it out on a keyboard until your big feelings have melted away. Let these instruments be the therapeutic resource to calm and comfort you. Prefer listening to music than making it? Relax with the music of Gary Lamb which complements our natural body rhythms.
Draw it out. Feelings may flow more freely on a blank canvas with the right medium. Invite children to draw their emotions; if their heart is twisted up like a tornado, for example, then they might draw a tornado. Ask them to tell you about the pictures if they’d like, and listen without judgment.
Write it out. Keeping a feelings journal can be a fantastic way to emote. There is no right or wrong thing to write into a journal. If students get stuck, invite them to look for three thankful things and write about that. Remember that feelings literacy includes feelings like happiness, joy, and hope, too.
Breathe it out. Breathing deeply with intention is a proven way to process big feelings. Using a mantra like inhale comfort, exhale chaos can help. For the littles, pretend you’re smelling a flower and then blowing out their birthday candles. Try Box Breathing or Finger Tracing. As another option, exhale first, then inhale to give Backward Breathing a go. Let the exhales be a bit longer and more forceful than the inhales. Try involving the sense of smell by employing scents that relax, like lavender, eucalyptus, tea tree, and spearmint.
Work it out. Exercise to release negative energy; doing it outdoors provides the added benefit of fresh air. Find a labyrinth, track, or cul-de-sac to move through feelings in a circular venue. Swing. Jump on a trampoline. Run. Swim. Skateboard. Ride a bike. Take a nature walk. Dance. Do whatever fits you physically to helps soothe and calm anxious feelings.
Manage them: Even though feelings choose us, we still have the power and the responsibility to choose how to respond to and manage them. Gather these resources and teach the skills proactively so that they will be available to children when they’re in the throes of big, overwhelming emotions that are threatening to overtake them. And just like a car needs regular tune-ups, check in periodically to modify any out-of-tune reactions so that you’re able to regulate your emotions for smoother sailing. You’ll be happier, healthier role model when your emotions are in check; our children will naturally follow suit. Thinking back, I wish I’d have had someone explain to me that we are who we are and we do what we do and we feel what we feel because we think what we think, that all emotions begin with a thought. Byron Katie’s Four Questions are super helpful to unlock errant thoughts or beliefs that prompt certain emotions to choose us.
If emotions get too big or uncomfortable to manage without professional help or medication, do not go it alone. Seek out a medical doctor, a professional counselor, or both, to help you regulate and get back on track.
Barbara Gruener thrives on positively influencing change, passionately helping people create caring connections, and intentionally improving a school's climate and culture. Her innovative and inspirational ideas are sparked by 34 years as a Spanish teacher and school counselor growing alongside students from every age and stage, Pre-K through 12th grade. A connected educator, Barbara loves leading supercharged character-development growth sessions with students, parents, teachers and administrators. Her book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, earned a Mom's Choice Gold Award for supporting caregivers with stories and strategies to use as they help develop character strengths in young people in school and at home. Though she grew up on a dairy farm in WI, Barbara and her family now call Friendswood, TX, home.