Did you know that we aren’t born knowing how to manage discomfort? Think about it… when a baby is uncomfortable, she cries. That’s it.
The goal of that cry isn’t to discharge a feeling, but rather it signals to a caregiver “I need help.”
This need for help, to some degree or another, continues through childhood and into young adulthood.
Caregivers who are attuned to this need are a crucial part of a child’s healthy emotional development. As child psychologist Dr. Mona Delahooke states, “The true foundation for helping children is built through the experience of love, safety, and connection in relationships.”
With a warm and responsive relationship at the foundation, there are some additional tools you can use to help your child learn how they experience emotions, and what to do if they feel too big to manage.
How To Help Children Regulate Their Emotions
Self-awareness, one of the five Social Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies identified by CASEL (casel.org), is defined as “the abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts.”
An emotion begins as a signal in the body – either of discomfort or comfort in varying degrees. This sets off a chain of responses to either escape the discomfort or seek out more of the comfort.
Emotional regulation is being able to respond to this comfort/discomfort in a way that matches the situation. For example, when you’re happy it makes sense to smile. When you’re mad, that’s a signal that something doesn’t feel right and you want to take action to make it better.
Emotional regulation is a skill learned intrinsically through warm and responsive relationships. Everyone, but especially kids with more vulnerable stress tolerance, benefit from explicit instruction also.
If your kiddo needs a little extra support matching her response to the situation try these steps:
- Help your child identify if the feeling in their body is comfortable or uncomfortable. This is an easier, more concrete concept than labeling an emotion. You can also label for them – “You look really uncomfortable. Does that feel right to you?” (Check out this blog post for more strategies to increase your child’s sensory awareness super powers)
- Focus on the need. Remember, discomfort signals that something needs to change. Ask, “What do you need right now?” You can also provide options such as a hug, a drink of water, or to shout really loud.
- Help your child meet that need.
When your child anticipates that you will meet their discomfort in this warm and responsive way, they will grow in both their ability to tolerate some discomfort, for example, being a little bit hungry and knowing food is on the way. They’ll also grow in their capacity to independently respond to their own needs, as well as when and how to seek out additional support.
If your child seems to consistently struggle to tolerate ordinary life discomforts – like a bit noisier environment, scratchy clothes, thirst when water is readily available – then that’s a good time to make a plan with your healthcare provider or a therapist.
Monsters! A Playful Tool for Teaching Emotional Regulation
Monsters are a fantastic metaphor for:
- Big, messy, uncomfortable feelings
- Those parts of us that we keep hidden
- Our worries
- Our inner critic
Monsters are made up of things that don’t seem like they should go together, and that’s part of what makes them so unsettling to view. Big, messy feelings are kind of like that – you expect one thing to happen, it doesn’t, and then you feel uncomfortable.
Playing with monsters offers a way to take this discomfort and put it outside of yourself. You make it smaller. Making your monster give you have control over it. What feels unsettling is magically transformed into something silly.
The act of creating can turn what feels unmanageable into something manageable.
If you want to bring an extra dose of Social Emotional Learning to your monster making activity, try these questions:
- What does your monster like best?
- What makes him grumpy?
- What does he do when he’s angry?
- What makes him feel better?
How to Set Up a Monster-Themed Invitation to Create
What makes a monster a monster is the unexpected – which means anything goes in terms of art materials!
You might start with a piece of paper or a paper plate to which your kiddo can add facial features, either with something to draw with, or with collage materials.
Recycled materials, items from nature, and other found objects are a great way to open up your family’s creative juices.
If you have it on hand, Model Magic or Playdoh are really fun to work with also. Adding texture and shape to your monster is a great way to amplify its unsettling or silly characteristics.
Display your monsters! Continue to have conversations with and about them. Incorporate the monsters into play time.
Make it easy on yourself. This is an invitation to create that kids absolutely love. Offer the prompt several times. You don’t even have to change up the materials. You’ll be amazed at how fun it can be to invite these monsters into your life.