Tools to Help Toddlers and Preschoolers Manage BIG Emotions

When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it is our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos. –L.R. Knost

It’s no secret that kids can have BIG feelings. They melt down, lash out, and sometimes I think they even surprise themselves with what they are capable of. As a nanny for 5+ years, I know it can be extremely frustrating and even baffling (You know those times where you give your toddler/preschooler exactly what they asked for and they still lose it? Anyone else?) I’m here to share some tips and tools that I have learned through my experiences as a nanny and Certified Child Life Specialist.

Identifying their feelings

The first step in teaching your child how to manage their emotions is helping them to understand what they are feeling. In my experience, the best place to start is with children’s literature. There are some amazing books out there that can help kids to label and recognize feelings; here are some of my favorites for toddlers and preschoolers:

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Even better, books can help with reminders throughout the day when you see your child beginning to escalate. For example, “Remember, how does a dinosaur act when he’s mad?” This can give you a common script to use and will hopefully begin to curb the behavior before it gets out of control.

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Step number two is modeling. This is SO important in the way children learn. Remember the saying “Do as I say, not as I do?” Well, I’m here to say what I think we all know- that it is not an effective way of learning or changing behavior. For instance, say I am a young child and I see that when Dad gets mad he yells or hits the table, or I see that when Mom gets frustrated she says “Ugh!” and tosses her phone across the table. Is it a surprise that when I get upset I scream, throw my toys, and kick the floor?

I am certainly not perfect and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to model wonderful coping skills 100% of the time. After all, we adults have our own complicated emotions to deal with. We have to remember not to expect perfection from our kids either. Adults often try to hide the fact that we too feel emotional at times. Although I know that this comes from a place of protection and love, it is actually good for our kids to see that we struggle too. How else will they learn the strategies to cope through it? Next time you are feeling frustrated/angry/impatient try taking a deep breath and saying something like this:

“It makes me feel frustrated [label the emotion] when I can see you aren’t listening. I’m going to count to 10 [name a coping strategy] to calm down before we try again.” [Then actually count out loud to 10 to model]

It will take practice for you to remember to do this in the moment just like it will take repetition and practice for your child to catch on. However, it will be worth it when one day you see your child stop, think, and choose a coping skill instead of escalating into a meltdown. Remember- monkey see, monkey do!

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Practice Coping Strategies

Lastly, here is a strategy to try when the inevitable meltdowns do happen, because they will happen. (No one is perfect, right?) Create a “calm down box” to facilitate the use of coping skills. This is something I started with one of the boys I nannied for when he was about 3 years old and feeling some big emotions. Instead of just telling him to “calm down”, which is not usually effective for children (or adults for that matter), I was able to bring him to his calm down box, have him choose something inside, and show him how to calm down. Here is what I included:

  • Box/Any Type of Container: Mr. 3 decorated his own bin with stickers to promote control and encourage excitement to use it.

  • Emotion Cards: These help kids name the emotion they are feeling.

  • Glitter Jar: This acts as a visual focus. I cannot count the number of times kids have screamed that they didn’t want it, but inevitably got drawn in to watching it and calmed as a result.

    • There are a million glitter jar tutorials on Pinterest. Michaels has recently started carrying this sensory bottle, which I think is much easier than finding the right water bottle to use. Just remember to glue the bottle shut!

  • Stress Ball, Punch Balloon: Anything similar to safely get their anger out

    • Target $1 section has had awesome resources in the past!

  • Pinwheel, Party Blower: Anything similar to encourage deep breaths (if they are breathing, they aren’t screaming!)

    • You can also make some fun versions, like this dragon one from Babyccino!

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Later Additions: As Mr. 3 got older I needed to spruce up the contents to encourage him to use it more and to introduce some new strategies.

  • Breathe Like a Bear Book: This incredible book was also a game changer! Mr. 3 loved to choose a page (once again, control!) and it got him to calm pretty much immediately all while learning new deep breathing techniques.

  • Game Spinner: Since he started getting into playing games, I thought this would be a great way to encourage him to use the calm down box and a way for him to exert control over the situation. Even when he was his most upset, he would always choose to spin, then would calm quickly, and follow through with whichever coping skill it landed on.

(Pro-tip: make a smaller, portable version of your calm down box to slide in your purse/diaper bag for those super fun on-the-go meltdowns)

While I’m not going to sit here and tell you that these strategies worked all of the time, I will say that I noticed a huge difference in how we both reacted to high emotion situations. A coping toolbox gives parents and caregivers something consistent to utilize, which I found made me feel more in control of the situation and less easily frustrated. For kids, it also provides consistency, which is key to learning coping skills and becoming independent with them.

I hope that you find success with these tips and strategies as well and can be on your way to a more peaceful household and emotionally intelligent kiddos!

Guest post by Kim Haberkorn #childlifespecialist #childlife #doseofplay #managingemotions #toddlers #preschoolers #emotionaldevelopment #childdevelopment #copingtools #kidcoping #copingtoolbox #copingkit

Kim Haberkorn is a former nanny and current Certified Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Kim loves seeing how differently children cope, even at the same developmental level, and using her skills in and out of the hospital to support children in being the best they can be.

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