11 Strategies for Regulating Big Emotions
The ability to feel and express emotions is a gift. It is often the doorway to authentic connection with our world and others. Yet for some children and youth, especially those who have experienced trauma, emotions can manifest in significantly upsetting ways, including uncomfortable, dull, or severe physical sensations, overwhelming and disturbing thoughts, and confusing impulses. Sometimes the trigger for these big reactions is clear, and other times the cause is not easily identified.
It is very scary, no matter our age, when we do not feel that we have control over our emotions or our responses to them. Emotions can get SO big that children and youth say and do things they later regret. This leads to shame and low self esteem. In some extreme cases, children and youth do not even remember what they said or did in the height of the episode. Lack of emotional control is damaging to people, relationships, and property.
This is the inspiration behind our Toolkit for BIG Emotions. This physical Toolkit gives children and youth 11 different strategies they can utilize as needed on a day-to-day basis while they learn how to “name and tame” their emotions (Daniel Siegel, The Whole Brain Child). If you already have a Toolkit for BIG Emotions, this post will help you dive deeper into how the elements included can be utilized.
Let’s get into the strategies.
Blowing bubbles encourages children to move from shallow breathing to deep breaths. Also, watching the bubbles fly can provide a distraction from disturbing thoughts. Try counting the bubbles to provide more opportunities for brain engagement.
Color or draw
This activity provides an opportunity for the brain and thoughts to reengage in the present, rather than moving into a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Talk about the colors you are using or what is going on in the story. This is more helpful in the moment than asking the child, “Why are you acting this way? What’s going on?”
Using a manipulative, like Play-Doh, clay, or slime, has been shown to reengage the nervous system through the sensation of touch. Rubbing lotion on your hands can have the same calming effect.
This activity creates signals back to the nervous system and may help the body calm down. Place both of your hands on the wall and push against the wall for 10 seconds. Count the seconds out loud. Tell your child to imagine that they can push the wall over. Repeat up to three times.
This is the same concept as Play-Doh. With the various fidget options available in the Toolkit, you have different choices for textures that are most soothing for your child.
Hug a stuffie
The act of hugging something soft, especially with pressure around the heart is very comforting and centers a child back in the moment. A soft pillow is also an option. It’s a tangible and comforting anchor back to the moment they are in.
Listen to music
Calming music has been shown to lower the heart rate and provide a calming sense. Create a playlist that you can have on standby and continue to update and edit as your learn your child’s preference.
The act of concentrated and steady breathing also slows the heart rate and gets more oxygen to the brain. The ball in your Toolkit is a great visual for showing the timing of breathing in (ball expands like the lungs) and breathing out (ball contracts as air is expelled).
Wrap up in a blanket
Some children may enjoy the comfort of being wrapped in a soft blanket or covered by a weighted blanket. The comforting sense of being held or protected can bring a child back from the brink of a tantrum or panic attack. (Not included in Toolkit)
Toss a bean bag into a bowl
This is another way to engage the brain in a physical activity that requires focus and concentration. (Not included in Toolkit)
Smell cotton balls with different scents like lavender or pepperment
Smells have been shown to be calming and also can help a child pay attention to the present moment by naming the smells and picking their favorites. (Not included in Toolkit)