Picture this. I am standing over the stove stirring dinner while holding the fussy infant, and my toddler sneaks in behind me, bringing a scoop of dirt in the house and pours it on the rug. Simultaneously, my five-year-old is wailing because her big brother allegedly took the toy she was playing with from her hand and scratched her in the meantime. The big brother is stomping up the stairs shouting angrily that she is lying and he didn’t do anything. I can feel my face getting hot as the chaos and emotions are swirling around the room–and most of them, inside of myself.
As an adult I have learned to identify what I am feeling in that moment and usually how to control my impulses, but even as a 35-year old woman with years and years of practice, I still have moments where the big feelings get the best of me and I react poorly. If that is true for us as adults, how much harder is it for children who haven’t had nearly as much education or practice?
This is just a quick snapshot of how quickly things can turn from peace to disorder in so many of my days and probably yours too. I wish I could just snap my fingers and all the big emotions in all of us could just settle down in moments like that. Since that isn’t possible, it is important for me to model to my children what healthy emotion regulation looks like. For me, in that moment, I may take a deep breath and ask my older children to go outside for a minute so I can handle one issue at a time and calm down before addressing their spat. I have learned what triggers me and certain strategies to use in those situations to help myself practice self-control.
This is not a skill we are born with, but rather it has to be taught, modeled, and practiced. As their parents, it is one of the most important things we can teach our children. A child’s capacity to identify and regulate their emotions affects their family and peer relationships, attention skills, and long-term mental health. A child who cannot self-regulate and throws tantrums constantly puts a strain on all the relationships in the household. Kids who don’t have the ability to control their feelings or behavior can have a harder time making or keeping friends. The inability to self-regulate emotions can lead to traits like anger, aggression, withdrawal, or anxiety. I have already seen glimpses of this in one of my young children, so I am on a journey to be more intentional in this area.
After multiple messy situations that arose where I found myself trying to sort out emotions with my children and talk through how they could manage those emotions differently, I decided I needed to be more intentional in teaching them and having a plan before the situation arose. I knew I needed something fun and visual. I decided it was time to have a go-to tool, so I created The Feelings Wheel For Kids and Calm Down Cards.
The Feelings Wheel
As you can see on the wheel, the emotions I used are separated into 4 colors. This is known as the Four Zones of Regulation and is often used in classrooms and in occupational therapy. I simplified the feelings and created simple visuals for each one. Here is a quick summary about the four zones.
The Green Zone
The green zone is used to describe when your child is in a calm state and ready to talk, listen, and learn. The emotions in this zone are calm, happy, and focused. This is the “goal zone”. If you are trying to read or do schoolwork and your child seems distracted, you could talk with your child about their feelings and how to get back to this zone before continuing lessons.
The Yellow Zone
The yellow zone is a place where the child typically still has some control, but they aren’t in the ideal zone for learning and relating. In this zone I have put anxious, silly, and confused.
The Red Zone
The red zone describes a heightened state of intense emotions. When a child is in the red zone, they usually really struggle to control their reactions. This is the zone kids are in during meltdowns. Here I have put angry, frustrated, and scared.
The Blue Zone
When a child is in the blue zone they are usually still in control, as you are in the yellow zone, but with low energy emotions. Here I have put tired, sad, and bored.
I share below some different ways you can use the wheel to teach about feelings and help your child through big emotions.
Calm Down Cards
The Calm Down cards are simply that–strategies put on cards, so that in the heat of a moment, your child can choose a card to help them calm down and “get back to the green zone”. My thought is that, by having the cards as options for the child, they will feel in control and empowered while making a decision on how to regulate their emotions. Ultimately, the goal is for them to do this without prompts or visual support, but the cards are a great tool for the “in-between”. I recommend looking through the cards and choosing a few to offer your child as appropriate options, rather than all of them at once.
How to Help Kids Handle Big Emotions
It’s common for kids to struggle with identifying their feelings. Recently we went to my sister’s house for a playdate and my son helped me pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch beforehand. The kids swam and played and when lunchtime came, my sister offered to cook for everyone, so I left the sandwiches in my lunch box and we served the kids spaghetti instead. My son started to cry and wanted to be alone. He kept saying he was too embarrassed to go sit and eat with his cousins. I was wondering why he was embarrassed so I could help him through it. I asked the cousins and his siblings if something happened before I came out to serve lunch. When I finally got him to talk about his feelings he said, “Mom, I just feel so embarrassed about having spaghetti for lunch. We always have that for dinner, not lunch! We packed sandwiches, remember? I really wanted to have the sandwich I made.” What he was really feeling was disappointed, not embarrassed.
Helping our child understand what they are feeling is really important. If they don’t know, then often we can’t help them through it. One way we can teach them is by taking time to teach the words for different emotions while they are not in the middle of the emotion. This is especially effective while reading stories to them. It can be any story because every story has situations where emotions are felt and expressed! You can pause reading and chat about what the characters may be feeling. I have been keeping our Feelings Wheel nearby during read-alouds so the kids can use it to visually identify and label emotions.
Another way is to model it! You can use the Feelings Wheel to talk about things that made you angry or excited and spin the arrow to those emotions. Then, encourage them to talk to you about their day and come alongside them in identifying their own feelings.
You can also play a charades-type game, pretending to feel a certain emotion and have your child spin the arrow to their guess. Talk about how your body looks and physically feels when you pretend to be each emotion on the wheel. For example, “I was pretending to be frustrated. Did you see that my mouth turned down, my forehead crinkled, and my teeth and fists clenched? If I was actually frustrated, my face might feel hot too.”
Express and Regulate
The next step to helping children handle their big emotions is to teach them how to appropriately express them. The first step to expressing their emotions is communicating them. The Feelings Wheel is so helpful for this because children are so visual and they can point or turn the spinner to the appropriate emotion that they are experiencing.
Take some time to help your child come up with appropriate ways of expressing their emotions, before the big emotion hits! You can do this by looking over the calm down cards and talking about which ones would help them in certain situations. You can also brainstorm new strategies your child can use the next time they feel a certain way and write them on the blank cards provided.
For example, you may say, “Remember when you got so frustrated when you couldn’t put on your helmet and so you threw it across the yard and stomped? What could you have done instead that would have calmed you down and helped the situation?” It might be one of the options on the cards or a combination of them.
In daily life, encourage your child to express their emotion and praise them when they do it in appropriate ways. Make sure to point out the specifics. For example, you might say, “I know you were anxious when you were playing that game but I love how you took big, deep breaths instead of quitting when your sister was winning.”
One thing I like to include in training my children in this area is what God says about our emotions. For starters, I remind my children that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit and that without God’s help, we will fail. We need his heart-changing love to help us choose kindness and gentleness in hard situations. They have seen me sing or pray the name of Jesus in a moment when I am tempted to scream. They may giggle or roll their eyes when I belt that out, but deep down I hope they remember who I turn to. We have also memorized scripture that has directly targeted some of those negative reactions, and I remind them of those passages as we talk through this. I pray with them in those big-feelings moments and ask God to help them identify what they feel and give us ideas to work out those feelings.
Here are a few of our go to passages.
“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.” Proverbs 16:32
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” Titus 2:11-12
“A [shortsighted] fool always loses his temper and displays his anger, But a wise man [uses self-control and] holds it back.” Proverbs 29:11 AMP
So far, I have been using the Feelings Wheel and Calm Down Cards with my children and they have proved to be helpful in so many situations! I hope it is a helpful tool for your family as well. I would love to see photos of your family using it. If you share them, tag me @treehouse_schoolhouse.