Supporting children with managing their emotions

Supporting children with managing emotion

Supporting children with managing emotion

When children arrive in the morning to start their kindy day, we want them to be happy about it. But when they are not, when they are crying and very clearly telling you ‘I want to go home’, it makes things difficult. It can be concerning. It will leave you wondering ‘why are they so upset?’, ‘do they not like it here?’, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ We see this with children who have only just started kindy, and we sometimes see it with children who have been coming to kindy for a long time. It's perfectly normal. 


Drop-off wobbles

Often, we know exactly what the reason is. Maybe their siblings are on holiday from school and they wanted to be with them, maybe Mum is away on a business trip and it has rocked their entire routine, or maybe there is absolutely nothing that we can think of. In that case, there are three reasons that can explain the morning wobbles when they just don't seem to make sense.

The first is quite simple — they like you more than they like kindy. They like spending time with you more than they do here, and if they could choose, they would have you with them catering to their every need ALL day long. But that’s not realistic, and it’s not the best thing for children’s learning. We are too easy of a play mate — we are too reasonable and already have the answers. It’s a far more challenging and therefore educational experience for children to learn and experiment alongside someone who is learning just like they are. It makes for a better process.

The second reason is that they are already having fun with you. Why stop having fun so that they can start having fun? It doesn’t make sense. What’s more, the fun they are having right now is so much more real than the imagined fun they might have at kindy after saying goodbye.

The third reason is that they are feeling powerless. For the most part, it’s a decision that is not up to them. You have likely made that decision with their well-being and your own commitments in mind. They may not understand it, they may protest it, but it’s the right decision. It’s not the first and not the last, and it’s perfectly reasonable for them to be sad or even angry about it. You would be too if someone made you go somewhere you didn’t want to, even if it were a tropical resort. 

As an adult we always have another choice but we don’t take it because we can understand the consequences. We manage our feelings instead, something that our children are still learning to do. Drop-off time is just one of many occasions when they get to practice that.


It's a part of life

As much as we all love to feel happy, all emotions are an essential part of being human. Sadness, anger, fear, we experience them too though often hide them from others — many of us have become really good at that. Children don’t usually hide their feelings. They make it known to everyone around them what they are feeling, and that’s a positive thing. We want to know. When we know, we can support them.


What adults can do

Children’s emotions, especially when young, are an intense experience that they often cannot manage on their own. There will be a reason or a cause and, to us, that cause may seem so benign that we will feel like laughing — and they might too a few years from now when we remind them. But in this very moment, it’s the most real thing in the world to them, and it’s important that we support them sensitively. Keeping that in mind, here are six things that we can do: 

  1. Create a sense of calm

This refers to how we approach the child in their upset. We need to manage our own reactions, our stress and our fears to create a calm ‘bubble’. That calm will create a baseline to which they can fall as they manage through their emotions. There is no need for us to pretend to be happy either. The goal is not to impose happiness on them, it’s to help them manage their feelings. 

  1. Help them communicate

Sometimes expressing strong feelings can be difficult. Anger, sadness, fear, disgust, they can get a little muddy. Picture charts can be a handy tool, different faces to represent emotions or volcanoes — dormant, steaming and erupting — so that children can point to how they’re feeling. For children a little older, Pixar’s movie “Inside Out” is a great representation of human emotions — one that is praised by psychologists all over for being scientifically accurate. 

  1. Acknowledge and give time

Knowing that we are heard and understood is so important for adults and children alike. Simply saying, “I understand that you are feeling upset/angry” or even repeating what the child says, like “you want mummy” is an effective way of conveying that to a child. We don’t need to change the causes — often the upset is caused by something that just needs to happen — but that doesn’t make the child’s feelings invalid. It’s okay for them to feel the way they do.

What we can do is give them time to manage their emotions. Sometimes they may want us sitting with them, and sometimes they may want to be left alone — this is often the case with anger. More often than not, this will allow them to manage their emotions while knowing that there is someone nearby who cares. 

  1. Help move on

Sometimes children can get so caught up in their upset that finding a way past it becomes very difficult — this is especially true with children who are very young. We may need to help them redirect their mind to something different, like an engaging activity or a story. Following the child’s interest is a sure way of finding what they would like to engage in after having expressed their feelings to us. 

Many children respond well to things that are physically engaging, like building with blocks, manipulating playdough or digging in the sandpit. Others may choose to get creative with paint or pencil, which is a great way to both express and manage emotions. 

  1. Don’t be manipulated but do listen

Demonstrations of sadness and anger are not a negotiation tool in a healthy relationship. If the emotions are caused by decisions made by the adult, any changes that we make after they’re expressed will open the door for these emotions to be used as a tool. Children are often powerless in the decisions we make, and if they find upset to be an effective tool in helping them overcome that, they will use it. It’s okay to be upset, but it’s not okay to use that to get your way.

That being said, while some decisions are outside of child’s control, there are many in which they can be involved. If possible, we can provide them with choices and involve them in planning of  days when we can be more flexible. We can negotiate, discuss what we would like and why we can and can’t do that, and come to an agreement together — if they say something reasonable in a reasonable way, it’s okay to change our mind. It’s a healthy thing to do, and it will show the child a way of getting what they want constructively. 

  1. Create routines

Routines are a big part of keeping children feeling in control as they make regular occurrences that happen throughout the day predictable. It’s comforting to know in advance when it is that something will happen as opposed to being suddenly told that it’s happening. Not all children need them, but nearly all benefit from having a consistent daily or even weekly routine. 


We're here to support you and your whānau

Mrs. Clayton holds a lot of experience in this area having supported her son Sam with feelings and emotions that were at times completely overwhelming.

“It’s important to recognise that it is not a ‘one size fits all’ when supporting children to develop strategies for managing their emotions. Our children are amazing individuals with different personalities and they learn in different ways. As a parent, I discovered that whilst a visual cue helped Sam to recognise what he was feeling, for my daughter, acknowledging what she was feeling, offering reassurance and communicating verbally appeared to work.”

Each child is different and may respond better to one strategy than to another. Our team at Little Treehouse have significant experience supporting children with managing their emotions, and we are always happy to talk. Make sure that you do reach out if you feel in need of advice. Similarly, don’t be afraid to seek support from health professionals. They hold far more insight than a blog post ever could.