Two Activities to Teach Basics of Emotional Regulation to Kids

October is Emotional Intelligence Awareness Month and Bounceback Parenting is happy to welcome psychologist and author Kyle Carlin to this space to talk about a couple activities for teaching of emotional regulation and self-regulation that parents can help their child learn. Kyle focuses on teaching these basics in his children's book, Bug and Boo, which is currently out of print but there are some copies still available.

Storybooks can be very helpful for teaching emotional intelligence skills  because they appeal to kids' imaginations and give them a story they can remember in order to be able to use the skills later.

Teach these two activities to kids and give them essential tools for self regulation and emotional control. This post contains Amazon affiliate links – if you purchase through I receive compensation at no extra cost to yourself.

frustrated child learning how to self regulate her emotions

What is Emotional Regulation?

It's normal for kids to feel emotional from time to time. After all, emotions are everyone's natural response to coping with the ups and downs of life. But what do you do when those emotions start to get out of control?

That's where emotional regulation comes in. Emotional regulation is all about learning how to manage your emotions in a healthy way.

Basics of emotional regulation for kids

Recognize your emotions. The first step to managing your emotions is to recognize when you're feeling them. Pay attention to your body and see how it feels when you're happy, sad, angry, or scared. You'll see how the first activity Carlin introduces helps with that emotional awareness, which leads to developing self-regulation.

Express your emotions in a healthy way. It's important to find a way to express your emotions that doesn't hurt yourself or others. That might mean talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or punching a pillow.

Take a break. When you're feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, it can help to take a break from the situation. Go for a walk, listen to music, or read a book.

Use positive self-talk. When you're feeling down, it's easy to believe negative things about yourself. But instead of listening to those thoughts, try using positive self-talk. For example, tell yourself “I can handle this” or “I'm doing my best.”

Seek professional help. If you're finding it hard to cope with your emotions, it might be time to seek professional help. A therapist can teach you more about emotional regulation and give you tools to deal with difficult situations.

2 Basic Activities That Teach Emotional Regulation and Self-Regulation Through Self-Awareness and Self-Control

by Kyle Carlin

As a school psychologist and parent of a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, I see opportunities to teach social-emotional skills every single day. My wife and I talk with my daughter and son about understanding their emotions and teach them ways to work through big emotions.

Dealing with conflicts with others

Although conflicts may not feel pleasant but they give a perfect opportunity to teach social-emotional skills.

  • We talk them through conflicts with their friends and each other, and encourage decision-making that is consistent with our values.
  • We model through our own interactions with them and others.
  • And we help them think about the conflicts of characters in books and shows.

There are times it seems like these efforts are moot. Of course, as children, they are not perfect with these skills. Just like adults.  However, there are times that our efforts are shown their worth.

One such event happened with my daughter recently. While playing with her best friend at after-school care my daughter was put in the predicament of choosing between a friend and what was right. Her friend took a toy from another kid and hid it. Using skills we'd taught her to stay calm and think through the situation, my daughter made the difficult choice to get the toy for the boy and gave it back.

We'll get back to this story in a moment, but first, let's take a look at a couple important emotional regulation skills parents can begin teaching right away to help their own kids manage tough situations.

Social-emotional learning takes consistency through our actions and our words to help kids develop the skills that allow them to navigate the world around them. Two areas that are great for parents to focus on are self-awareness and self-management skills.

Teach these two essential activities to kids to help them gain social emotional skills

Self-Awareness – Name it to Tame it:

Self-awareness is our ability to recognize our own emotions. This includes being able to notice the changes in our thoughts and body that are signs of our emotions and being able to label our emotions.

When we are mad, irritated, afraid, or worried, our brain thinks we are in a dangerous situation and our body changes to address this potential danger. Some of these changes include

  • Rapid heartbeat or breathing
  • Redness in face
  • Clenched teeth
  • Clenched fists
  • Raised voice
  • Tight muscles
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Feel fidgety

When your child notices these changes to their body, they can identify strong emotions better. To help them with this, help them label their emotions (name it to tame it). Model by labeling your own emotions when you are talking with may feel awkward at first, but if you give a play-by-play during your own emotions, you'll help your child recognize these emotions in themselves. Point out the changes that occur to their bodies. Anger, for instance is a particularly strong emotion – learning to identify the physical changes happening in your body can help your child (and you!) identify the emotion and take steps to handle it. You can find a printable activity to do with your kids for talking about self awareness during anger here.

Self-Management – Focused Breathing:

Self-management is our ability to control our emotions so we can make appropriate decisions. When we have strong emotions, it makes it harder for us to make an appropriate decision about our problems. Calming strategies can help us refocus on the problem and promote positive choices.

An effective calming strategy is focused breathing.

With focused breathing, you become aware of your own breathing. One example includes counting to 5, taking a deep breath, and repeating until you feel calm. Another example is balanced breathing. With balanced breathing, you breathe in for three seconds and then breathe out for three seconds. The focused breathing I teach my kids is belly breathing. This is where you put your hands on your stomach and pay attention to your belly going up and down as you breathe.

There are several other strategies, but belly breathing is something young children seem to understand and can use effectively. Because of this, belly breathing is a skill I focus on in Bug and Boo.

Sometimes parents will tell their child, “Just breathe.” not realizing that young kids may not quite know what that means. Practice belly breathing with your child to show them how they can feel their hand going up and down with their breath. Another way to show belly breathing is to put a stuffed animal on their belly and have them breathe it up and down.

How did my daughter use her social emotional skills?

So, remember when I said we got to see my daughter use her growing emotional regulation skills? The story didn't end when she gave the hidden toy back. Once she did that her friend got mad and said they were not friends anymore.

My daughter was hurt and saddened. She was in tears when my wife picked her up, and once again social emotional skills came into play.

We made sure she knew she did the right thing, and talked with her about how hard these decisions are. She listened and used strategies we taught her to calm down. Because she was able to get calm she was also able to understand that even though her friend got mad, she'd made the right choice. Soon enough her friend also calmed down and the friendship is still intact. Through this conflict our daughter was able to practice her social-emotional skills and gain one more life experience that increases her resilience and will help her continue to make responsible decisions.

The social-emotional development of our kids starts early and depends on our interactions with them day after day. With any luck, these efforts can help our children make tough decisions when we are not around. Decisions that will fit your family’s values, even when their friends are leading them toward other choices.

Want more support for teaching emotional regulation?

About the Author:

Kyle D. Carlin is a school psychologist in the United States. During his career, Kyle has worked closely with children of all ages to help them develop the emotional regulation that is needed to be successful in the classroom and life, and he brings this experience to his writing.

Bug and Boo - Storybook for Teaching Kids Emotional Regulation

When working in preschools early in my career, I found that parents often wanted to do more to support the social-emotional needs of their children, but they were unsure of how they could help. I wrote Bug and Boo to introduce social-emotional concepts to kids, while also giving caregivers specific things they can do to support the social-emotional development of the children in their lives. This includes questions and discussion that can happen before and while reading, and includes mini-lessons with scripts that parents can use to reinforce ideas from Bug and Boo.

Kyle D. Carlin

Kyle serves on the executive board of the Kansas Association of School Psychologists, having held the positions of Western Region Director and President. He also serves on several advisory boards and committees related to social-emotional and learning needs of children. Kyle is committed to finding opportunities to positively affect the lives of as many children as possible.

Married with two children, Kyle spent 8 years in the US Army Reserves where he achieved the rank of Sergeant and was deployed to Southwest Asia once.