It can be hard for little kids to make sense of big feelings. This post offers some conceptual metaphors that may help them to wrap their minds around the feelings and start to get a handle on them.
Emotional intelligence is vital to a child’s lifelong success and happiness. Recognizing the emotions of others helps them build relationships and get along with others. Recognizing and managing their own emotions helps them stay focused at school or work, and keeps them out of trouble. We used to assume children would somehow just “figure that emotional stuff out”, but we’ve learned that it helps to spend time actively teaching about emotions.
Types of Feelings – the Big 4
You can teach that there are different types of emotions. I call these the sads, the mads, the glads, the scareds. Most other feelings can fit under one of these categories. Even a toddler can get familiar with these four ideas, and how people look or sound when they’re having these emotions, and how those four emotions feel in their own bodies.
(It is worth noting that many psychologists argue that “mad” is a secondary emotion, and that usually someone who appears to be angry is actually either sad or scared underneath that angry surface. Your child may not be able to relate to this idea, but for you as an adult, it’s often helpful to look at an angry child, and ask yourself… what are they scared of? If you can address the underlying fear, often the anger melts away.)
How Big is the Feeling?
I also teach that there are different levels of intensity of emotion. Some feelings are small and easy to ignore. Some are challenging but manageable. Some are so big that they overwhelm us.
When you teach your child words for feelings, you can also help them understand how the words describe different levels of feelings.
(Here are lots more examples of emotional vocabulary words)
Taking the Emotional Temperature
Some children may find the thermometer image helpful.
When they’re generally feeling “fine”, they’re in the green area.
When feelings start to stir – they’re a little disappointed, frustrated, or apprehensive – they’re moving toward the yellow area. They may be able to just distract themselves with an activity or do some calming self-talk to get back in the green area.
When the feelings start getting bigger – they’re hurt, angry, anxious, or overexcited – they may need to actively work to calm down: take some deep breaths, count to 10, or talk about their feelings. If a child has moved into a red zone, and is feeling heartbroken, or outraged, or terrified, they will typically need an adult to help them to calm down.
You might find it helpful to have a visual tool to work with – you can print out or draw a thermometer image so the child can point out where they’re at on the thermometer. (You might also try making a worksheet to help them sort out how they know what level they’re at and what to do about it… see example 1, example 2, and 3) Learn more about the thermometer technique.
At first, after you teach this idea to your child, you will label for your child where you think they are. Gradually, you’ll ask them to tune into their own moods and describe how they’re feeling. Eventually, our goal is for them to notice when they’re “heating up” and use soothing strategies to “cool down.” (See notes below on stages of emotional development.)
Zones of Regulation
Some parents / professionals have found it helpful to compare the zones of regulation to characters from the movie Inside Out, by creating charts like this. (Note: all images copyright Pixar.)
You can teach your child about the Zones. Again, at first, you might label for them the zone you think they might be in. Over time, you ask them to identify their own feelings as they’re experiencing them. Then we work on teaching them the tools they can use in each zone to help them get to (or stay in) the green zone. This vocabulary gives you a common vocabulary for discussing these ideas, which then allows you to work together on problem-solving.
Developmental Stages of Emotional Intelligence
Children go through these stages. They have to first notice and understand an emotion before they can figure out how to manage it.
If we expect a very young child to jump straight to stage 5 and be able to keep themselves calm at all times, they’re simply not going to be successful at that. Like all things, this is a gradual learning process. And like all other skills, sometimes children regress. If your child is up to stage 3 or 4 on a good day, they may go back to step 1 when they’re exhausted, sick, or hungry. Be patient with them as they learn.
Stage 1 – Noticing the symptoms. The first stage is to just get them to notice and talk about the feelings they experience. For very young children, point out to them “it seems like you’re sad” or “I see your eyes are big, and you’re rubbing your hands together – it looks like you’re worried.” As you notice and talk about these things, it can help them notice them too. You can also point out feelings of characters in books or movies, or the people you encounter in daily life.
Stage 2 – Diagnosing feelings. As they get older, ask them to use words to describe their own feelings (or those of others). Once they’re starting to be able to label “the big 4” consistently, then work on describing the intensity of those feelings (maybe using the thermometer image or the zones labels).
Stage 3 – Learning concrete strategies for calming down. Teach them a number of strategies, and have them make lists of what is helpful to them in each zone. For example: if they’re in the blue zone, they might stretch, drink water, or talk to someone. In the yellow zone, they might take deep breaths, count to 10, or write about how they’re feeling. In the red zone, they may move away from the situation that’s upsetting them or ask for help. Practice these skills when they’re calm.
Stage 4 – Being able to implement calming strategies when upset. This is hard work. We can’t expect them to learn overnight! We first work on how to self-soothe the smaller upsets in the yellow zone, and as they get better at that, they might be able to tackle red zone feelings. Until they can, they’ll need support from adults to help with this.
Stage 5 – Understanding what triggers big emotions, taking actions to prevent problems, and use self-care strategies to stay calm when hard things happen. Many adults are still learning this step! But we can teach our big kids, tweens, and teens to be more aware of what situations are often challenging for them and thinking of ways to make those more manageable.
I have not put ages for the different stages here, because children range widely in their emotional development. I have known some preschoolers who were often working at stage 4. My child at age 9 is still struggling with stage 4. He’s autistic, and emotional regulation is a big challenge for him. But we can, and should, be working with all toddlers and preschoolers on stage 1 – 3 skills, and tackling stage 4 and 5 whenever they’re ready for it.
Help Your Child Build a Library of Strategies
Find, or create, a worksheet (or a series of worksheets) you can go over with your child to help them learn about the zones, learn what their own symptoms are that tell them what feeling they’re having and how intense it is, and write down the calming strategies that they have learned, practiced, and that work well for them.
I created a worksheet – here’s the PDF you can download and print: Zones of Regulation Worksheet and here’s what could look like filled out
There are tons of other great tools – just search online, or check out the Emotion Thermometer, emotional defcon levels, the revving engine metaphor, tools to get in the green zone, and a poster of calming tools I can use at school.
Big feelings can overwhelm a child. If they have the vocabulary and the tools to notice the feelings coming on when they’re still small and manageable (yellow zone), and if they have the tools to calm themselves down (get back to green), they’ll experience fewer big meltdowns (red zone moments) which is a happier situation for everyone involved!