Does your child struggle with handling difficult emotions? Learn 5 coping skills for kids to manage these big feelings on their own. By Amy Wruble
My 7-year-old came home from summer camp in a horrible mood.
She called me names, kicked her little sister for no reason, and stomped around yelling for a solid 20 minutes. Since she doesn’t normally act this way, I figured something must have happened to upset her, but it took a while to unravel the details.
It turned out she’d taken a scary tumble, gotten hurt, and felt embarrassed. The physical plus emotional pain was enough to shake up her whole system for a while. After lots of talking, hugs, and calming down, she was full of apologies and back to her old self.
Sometimes I think my number one job as a parent is to teach kids to cope with their big feelings. Many times throughout the day, they have to deal with disappointment, worry, fear or anger, such as:
- An unfamiliar experience, like a new sitter or school
- Being told “no” when they want something
- Having to stop their fun, like leaving the park or ending play to pick up toys
- Not getting a turn
- A change of plans
- A scary nightmare
- A fight with a friend
Coping skills for kids
The problem? Kids aren’t born with the skills they need to process their emotions in a safe and effective way. We can direct them away from destructive behaviors like screaming and hitting and toward constructive ways to cope.
Here are several coping skills I’ve been working on with my own kids that I’ve found helpful, and I hope you will too:
1. Make a mad list
We’re always telling our kids what they can’t do, like kick the dog or throw their trucks. But what can they do when they’re so furious they have to let off some steam?
Hit a pillow? Kick a ball? Write in a journal? Run outside? Race the stairs? Walk away? Make the list together and review it during calm times so your child will remember what to do when she needs it.
That way, when she feels intense emotions, you can remind her of her options.
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2. Bridge the mind-body connection
Teach your child that worries can sometimes make our bodies ache, from making our head hurt to causing butterflies in our stomachs. Let’s not forget that the discomfort in our bodies (think hunger, exhaustion, a cold) can put us in a really bad mood.
When she learns to connect what’s happening in her body with her heart and mind, she can better understand her own emotions. She can even help herself feel better by getting a snack or taking a quiet moment.
In fact, teach her a few techniques to calm both her mind and body. She can:
- Take deep breaths. Something that many adults do to control stress that does not come easily to kids is taking deep breaths. It’s funny to see them try—they have no idea how! Katie Hurley, author of The Happy Kid Handbook, suggests a kid-friendly breathing exercise called balloon breathing. Have your child imagine using her breath to inflate a balloon in her favorite color, then letting that balloon float away into the clouds.
- Practice yoga poses. I added a few yoga poses to our bedtime routine to help my busy little people wind down. Turns out, yoga is also great for calming bodies and minds during stressful times. Tree pose, cobra, and downward dog are some of their favorites.
- Mediate. No one expects a three-year-old to sit still in silent meditation for an hour like a Buddhist monk. Instead, I found a simple activity—a sparkle jar—to be one of the best coping skills for kids. While reading Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee MacLean to my girls, I first learned about the concept of a sparkle jar and how to make one. First, fill a clear, lidded container like a mason jar with a mixture of water, glycerin, food coloring, and glitter. Then, encourage your child to shake the jar and concentrate on watching the glitter slowly settle back to the bottom. Focusing in this way will help clear and relax her mind.
3. Draw a picture
Whenever my daughters have a bad dream or are trying to process something scary, I always suggest they draw a picture.
Not only is making art a soothing activity, but translating frightening ideas to paper takes a lot of the sting out of them. A man-eating snake from a nightmare looked “cute” once she was done coloring it, and she felt much better!
The act of drawing also allows them to process the thoughts going through their minds. No longer are they a jumbled mess that make no sense, but now a pattern, an art piece, that they can describe.
4. Read books about feelings
Many of us save reading for the bedtime routine, but it’s also an amazing tool for calming and reconnecting with our kids any time of day.
When mine are agitated, I head straight for the story time chair. I’ll read anything that makes them happy, but I’ve also slipped in some books that teach coping strategies. Books like Calm Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick or When Sophie Gets Really Really Angry by Molly Bang are favorites at home.
For babies, I love Happy Baby, Sad Baby by Leslie Patricelli, which explains so much with just a few words. For toddlers, Duck & Goose, How Are You Feeling by Tad Hills increases their vocabularies to include feelings like “frustrated” and “proud” with clear examples.
And for preschoolers, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Today I Feel Silly does an amazing job connecting the dots between feelings and situations. It even has a wheel you can spin to match emotions with facial expressions.
5. Find your child’s bliss
What helps your child release the tension she feels? Each child has her own unique set of ways to snap her out of her funk, or change the mood when she’s wound too tight.
Maybe it’s knock knock jokes, blowing bubbles or taking a walk outside. She might prefer singing silly songs, bouncing a basketball in the yard, or reading a book. This is her way of calming herself down or remembering to pull away from the heightened emotions she feels.
There’s one more thing.
Our kids are always watching us, so one of the best ways to teach coping skills for kids is by showing them. When I’m driving in traffic and my kids aren’t in the car, I’m more likely to give into my basest road rage instincts. But when I’m with them, I’m reminded to do better.
I narrate my feelings, saying, “Wow, there’s a lot of traffic—we might be late. That’s frustrating and I’m start to feel tense, so I’m going to play my favorite 80s radio station and sing along because that always makes me feel better.”
Whether a traffic jam or a hard day at summer camp, we can all learn—and show—a few coping skills now and then.
Get more tips:
- 8 Keys to Explaining Emotions to Your Child
- How Teaching Kids about Emotions Reduces Misbehavior
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- How to Help Your Angry Child
- How to Teach Kids to Embrace Mistakes
Amy Wruble is a mother of two princess-obsessed girls. She is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to mom.me and Momtastic. She blogs at amywruble.com.
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