Helping children recognize feelings and handle emotions

Over the last few months, I have received hundreds of queries from worried parents on how to help their child manage their feelings or how to improve a child’s emotional intelligence. I finally penned my thoughts into a step wise post. Here is a step by step guide as to what helps me and what could help you, with tweaking, to your own family’s philosophies.
This older post may help one handle tantrums specifically and gently, whereas the following steps is a general long term agenda to help a child’s emotional quotient. This goes for the everyday grind, and traumatic incidents or children with special needs may need streamlined strategies.

1. Setting realistic expectations

Let’s be honest. How many times do we lose our temper or get carried away by a feeling, everyday? It isn’t fair to expect children to be in control of their emotions all the time. Despite V telling us clearly if she is upset or cranky, there have been days the corresponding behaviour is hard to handle. The key point to remember is that it’s okay. Regulating behaviour is a long term process and will not happen overnight.

2. Naming the feelings

Children, especially toddlers have a hard time understanding what they are feeling. It always helps if we put a name to it.
For example, ” It is bedtime and you need to sleep. It looks like you’re feeling cranky.”

3. Relating feelings to behaviour

Drawing attention to the physiological changes helps a child be more attuned to their own body.
For example, ” I notice your hands are shaking and you’re grinding your teeth. It looks like you’re angry.”
Verbalize the reason as well, if you can guess it.
For example, “I’d be angry too if I was looking forward to park time and it started raining.”

This can be especially useful for infants as well. It was always an eye-opening exercise for me to be attuned to V’s needs as a baby.
For example, ” I see you’re angry because you want the rattle but you cannot reach it. I’m gonna bring it next to you then.”

4. Allow all feelings, but not all behaviour

All feelings are welcome- happy, sad, angry, jealous, greedy, etc. That is all what constitutes a healthy and rounded individual. Accepting all feelings with warmth also helps keep the communication channels between parent and child open.
However, it isn’t okay to act upon those feelings. Acknowledge the feeling and set the limit. You can read more about setting limits here.
Hence, ” I understand you are upset. But I cannot allow you to hit me. That hurts me.”

5. Managing difficult emotions

Okay, the child now knows she is angry or upset. Now what? 

For really young infants, connection in the form of a cuddle, hug or back rub may work.

With toddlers, drawing attention to a safer and logical alternative helps.
For example, “We cannot go down because it’s raining, how about we watch the rain and make paper boats instead?”

Or for toddlers on a spirited day, ” I cannot allow you to hit me. How about you use this toy hammer on the floor every time you feel angry?” 
Wooden hammer toys, ice play and water beads helped us sail through many temperamental days between 1-2 years of age.

And now, as she is growing older, I just help activate the higher functioning areas of her brain by asking her, ” We can’t go down. What can we do instead?” This also helps develop a more positive and problem solving attitude in the child.

For even older children having trouble regulating behaviour, breathing techniques, meditation, counting to 10, etc can be taught.

6. Repair

Let us face it. However hard one tries, the fact of the matter is that children cannot always regulate their behaviour. They are still learning. There are going to be accidents.
If there is a meltdown, allow it to pass calmly, and then once the child has let it all out ( look out for signs– drooping of the shoulders or a deep sigh) work on repair. A simple, ” Okay, so you broke this in anger. What can we do to make it better?” goes a long way.
For younger children, a little more direction may be required. And this limit can be as personal as what goes with your family.
For example, in our home, raising hands on self/ others or books is a no-go, whatever the situation.

7. Model

Apart from being aware of their own emotions, it is important that children understand that everyone feels all feelings, and they see adults handle themselves. I usually tell V, “I am feeling happy because…” or “I am feeling upset because…”. Now, I can tell her, “Amma is feeling tired and needs some alone time.” And she obliges because she understands.
It also helps a child understand facial cues and develop empathy.
Is it okay if we can’t handle our own emotions well all the time? Yes. As long as we repair consciously, apologize and make up, I believe we are still modelling good behaviour.

8. Patience

And lastly, add a huge dollop of patience into the mix. Every day is not going to be perfect. Some days, I ace the most difficult meltdowns. Some days are not that good. Be patient with your child, but remember to be patient with yourself as well. We are all learning one day at a time.


I have noticed that books go a long way to help us talk about emotions. Yes, they still come second to real life instances, but here are a few of my favourite books on this topic.
1. The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
2. Feelings: Inside my heart and in my head by Libby Walden
3. In my heart- A book of feelings by Jo Witek
4. Hands are not for hitting series
5. You, me and empathy

One comment

Leave a Reply