Emotional Rescue: Activities for Emotional Development

Do your child's moods swing wildly from minute to minute? We've got ways to help smooth the ups and downs.
child screaming

Tina Rupp

Living with a preschooler can be like riding an emotional roller coaster. Your child is happy to be playing with his favorite toy, then angry that his big brother grabbed it away, and then sad that the toy is broken. In the span of a few minutes, he's gone from giggles to rage to tears, and the drama has probably left you drained too.

Why do young kids tend to have such extreme mood swings? It's not because they feel things more deeply than adults do. "Toddlers and preschoolers simply haven't learned to express their emotions in socially acceptable ways, so they have a tendency to spiral out of control very quickly," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start.

Your child's emotional development begins right from birth. Studies show that newborns are capable of feeling distress and contentment, and that a child can display joy, sadness, anger, and fear by his first birthday. Jealousy and guilt kick in around age 2. Coping skills, however, generally don't come along as early or as easily.

That's where you come in. As a parent, it's your job to help your child recognize what he's feeling and deal with it appropriately. According to research by John Gottman, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, coaching a kid to label his emotions actually calms his nervous system, which translates into fewer meltdowns. The long-term payoff is even greater: Studies show that kids who can manage their feelings get along better with their peers, excel in school, and are less likely to behave defiantly or aggressively. Our guide will help your child learn how to handle his powerful emotions -- and provide exercises you can work on together.

Defusing Anger

Anger is an especially tough emotion for your child to manage because it causes a surge of adrenaline that makes his heart race and triggers the impulse to lash out. Curbing an inappropriate response, such as hitting or biting, takes continual reinforcement with these six steps: 1. Verbalize for your child why he's upset ("You're mad because Zach got marker on your giraffe"). 2. Validate his feelings ("I'd be upset, too, if that happened to my stuff"). 3. Explain that hitting (or kicking or biting) isn't a suitable way to deal with his rage. 4. Ask how he thinks his actions made the other person feel. 5. Enforce a consequence (such as a time-out or a loss of privileges). 6. Have an older child apologize once he's cooled down.

Although punching a pillow or stomping his feet may seem like a reasonable way for your child to blow off steam, a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests these outlets actually do the opposite. "They get a child revved up even more," says Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., lead researcher at the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. A better way to get the angries out is for him to do some nonaggressive activities (such as jumping jacks) for a while to release his negative energy.

Try This! At bedtime on the day of an anger episode, have your child lie on his back, close his eyes, place his hands on his tummy, and complete this exercise (explain that it will help him relax so he'll fall asleep faster): As he inhales, tell him to picture a balloon filling up with air. Ask him to hold his breath for several seconds and then slowly breathe out so the balloon gets little again. Then, the next time he's angry you can suggest that he place his hands on his stomach and picture blowing up a balloon and letting out the air as he takes deep breaths to calm down.

Sesame Street Lessons: Handling Anger
Sesame Street Lessons: Handling Anger

Facing Fear

All sorts of things can frighten a young child, ranging from dogs to starting preschool to the vacuum cleaner that sounds like it might swallow her up whole. Three-year-old Isabelle Ondrak, for example, has a serious problem with bugs. "She screams at the mere sight of any flying insect," says her mom, Cathy, from Denver.

Experts say it's important to take such fears seriously because they're very real to your child. "Saying, 'Don't be silly. This bug isn't going to hurt you,' doesn't validate her suffering," says Dr. Gottman. Instead, focus on easing her anxiety. You might point out the similarities between bees (ouch!) and butterflies (beautiful) -- they both fly, help flowers grow, and are colorful. You can also try a "show and tell" approach. For instance, show her that a vacuum can't even suck up a small tissue box, or explain to her why dogs bark so loudly ("That's just how they talk").

Try This! Preschoolers are far less likely to be afraid of something if they are able to picture it in a playful, nonthreatening light, according to a study published in Child Development. With that in mind, you can have your child draw a picture of the neighbor's scary dog, and then add long eyelashes, pink polka dots, freckles, and other silly things to make it seem less intimidating. Once the masterpiece is finished, give it a title (such as "Don the Dopey Dog") and have a good laugh. The next time she's frightened, tell her to remember the drawing and suggest a reassuring mantra ("Don the Dopey Dog won't hurt me").

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