How to help children recognise and handle their emotions

The global pandemic and lockdowns can affect children just as much as adults, but there are simple ways to help youngsters develop good mental health.

To mark recent World Mental Health Day, and in light of the current COVID-19 situation, here are six strategies developed by a play therapist to support children.

Name emotions and feelings.

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Until someone has the vocabulary associated with emotions and feelings, they will not be able to explain how they feel or identify how others are feeling.

Name emotions when your child experiences them, it might feel like you are stating the obvious, but you are giving your child an important tool towards becoming emotionally intelligent. You could use emotion cards or a booklet of emotions as tools to ease communication.

Explain the physical sensations linked to emotions and feelings

Help children to recognise how different emotions present in their bodies. Do they feel a bit sick when they are anxious? Do their shoulders feel tight when they are stressed? Do they become very busy when they are avoiding something?

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By helping them notice these physical traits they will begin to recognise them and might be able to react before their brains get flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. A useful activity might be to draw the emotions, or design emotion emojis.

Understand when and why a feeling or emotion is felt.

The better children become at naming and spotting their emotions the easier it will be for them to notice the triggers for those emotions. If they get a knot in their stomach on the way to school and know it is because they feel anxious you can start to explore where the anxiety comes from.

Are they worried about the moment of goodbye, is it walking into a group of people, or is it something else?

By pinpointing the cause of the feeling, you and your child will be able to understand it better. Use activity sheets, a mood tracker or fellings check-in cards.

Develop strategies to regulate emotions

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When you and your child are able to notice, name and understand the source of a feeling or emotion you can begin to work out ways to help them regulate. Is a big calming breath needed? Or maybe a few star jumps?

There isn’t one set route to regulating a child’s emotions. What works best for your child will be for you to figure out together. Try colouring sheets for mindfulness, and learn how to meditate.

Maintain boundaries to keep everyone safe

Rules that maintain safety should be non-negotiable. These will vary depending on the age and developmental stage of a child.

When a child feels a big emotion, their brain will not be working in the same way as it does when calm.

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Expectations and language may need to be adjusted to help the child stay safe. Rather than thinking that a child should be punished for breaking a rule, work with your child to help them succeed in staying safe.

Relate with your child

Once they are calm and are able to listen, empathise with your child. Talk to them about a time you felt the same way and what happened.

This will help them to understand their feelings and feel like you understand them, and care about them.

Catherine Lynch is an experienced teacher, play therapist and senior manager at PlanBee, which creates teaching resources for primary school aged children (aged five to 11) which meet English National Curriculum objectives.