Helping Children Manage Their Feelings

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

It seemed clear to the teachers that Seth was unable to keep his strong feelings from overwhelming him so much that he could not control his actions. According to Stanley Greenspan (1997), a child psychiatrist who has studied children's emotional development extensively, one of a child's earliest tasks is to learn to integrate feelings into a sense of self—to know that a person can move from playful joy to anger, and back to joy, all while remaining the same person (pp. 68–73). Here are some suggestions for helping children recognize and understand their feelings:

  • Give children words for their feelings.  "You're angry because Josh took the wagon you wanted."  "It looks like you're feeling sad about saying goodbye to your mom this morning."  "I can see that you're so excited about spending the weekend at your dad's that it is hard for you to settle down for a nap."
  • Incorporate knowledge about feelings into the curriculum.  Read books about feelings in general or about children coping with particular feelings.  Use puppets or dolls to present vignettes of common situations, such as a child talking a toy from another, and ask children how they think the character might feel.
  • Encourage children to reflect on their own feelings.  For example, help them make personal books with pages captioned, "I felt sad when....., I felt happy when...." and so on.  Be sure to include the full range of feelings, both positive and negative.  Children can illustrate each page with a drawing, or you can take digital photographs of them acting out the facial expressions corresponding to each feeling.  Children will enjoy looking at themselves in a mirrow as they ty out these expressions

But children need more than a name for the powerful feelings that seem to take over their bodies. Children—and adults—need to learn to manage those emotions so that they don't become slaves to their own passions. Another psychologist, Daniel Goleman (1995), argues that this type of emotional intelligence can play a larger role than conventional I.Q. in one's happiness and success in life. Adults help children manage strong feelings by removing insofar as possible the circumstances likely to trigger outbursts and by teaching children specific strategies for calming themselves when things happen to upset them.


Frustration is frequently the initiator of troublesome behavior, and it takes a considerable amount of time for a child to learn to cope with it. Frustrations arise

  • When the child is stopped or thwarted in some desired activity—when the child is riding a tricycle and another child builds a barrier in the road, for instance
  • When the child fails to get something that she has waited for—when a child has waited for a turn to hold the bunny and a quick spring shower requires a shift of children and activities indoors, for example
  • When there are insufficient toys and equipment and the child doesn't see anything to use as a substitute for the desired one
  • When the child attempts or is encouraged to attempt activities that are too difficult for him or her
  • When a change in familiar routines, people, or activities occurs

Children (like adults) respond to frustration in a variety of ways. Some children react by withdrawing for a while and then seem unable to regain their momentum. Psychologist Jean Piaget (1962) explained that once young children make up their minds about something, they get “centered” and find it very difficult, if not impossible, to think of another solution or to change direction (pp. 235–236). The frustrated child often cries, gets angry, and may strike out, either to get whatever is desired or just to relieve tension. Anger is a common response to frustration. Angry children may hit, push, bite, cry, scream, or have temper tantrums. Of course it is unrealistic to think that children could, or even should, go through life without experiencing frustration. Acquiring the ability to cope with frustration is an important part of emotional development. Adults who seek to guide that development, however, do have a responsibility to help keep the level of frustration within manageable limits for the particular children in a given setting. Knowing that two-year-olds can probably tolerate less frustration than four-year-olds, you will make sure to have several duplicates of popular toys in a toddler room. On the other hand, you might expect the four-year-olds to be able to wait for their turns with the new wagon. Furthermore, you will tailor your age-based expectations to the particular characteristics of the children in your care. While turn-taking may be an appropriate goal for four-year-olds in general, many factors might make it less appropriate for any particular four-year-old. Children who have never had opportunities to play with other children, for example, or children who have never had their own toys might find sharing especially difficult. A child whose coping skills are already taxed by a disability or by an abusive home life may have a much lower threshold for frustration than a child without these challenges. Remember that the ability to share requires a feeling that one has enough of whatever is being shared. Once you are sure you have eliminated sources of unnecessary or extreme frustration, you should then concentrate on ways to help children learn to manage their reaction to frustration. Recognizing children's feelings and encouraging them to express those feelings are good starting points. After children have become calm, you can help them think of strategies for coping. For example, children can sometimes wait a turn more patiently if they “sign” their names on a waiting list for a popular toy, thus assuring that they will be next.

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