Little Kids, Big Emotions: Teaching Kids How To Handle Feelings

We all experience events through our own personal lenses, and children are no exception. Being little in a big world can feel outrageously overwhelming at times. Whether it’s adjusting to a new environment, dealing with family issues, or simply being fed a broken cracker, (the horror!) kids’ worlds can be turned Topsy Turvy in the blink of an eye. Luckily, there are things that we, as adults, can do to help our young ones learn to manage their emotions.

One technique, pioneered by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson and expanded upon by Dr. Hazel Harrison, involves teaching children to imagine that their brains are like little houses, with upstairs and downstairs floors. The upstairs floors contain characters that Dr. Harrison calls “Problem Solving Pete,” and “Calming Carl,” (or whatever names your little one chooses to use), to represent the parts of the brain that help us make calm and rational decisions. Scientifically, these parts refer to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that helps us decide how to handle things. Of course, the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully formed yet in little kids, or even young adults, until about the age of 25, but, we can still count on this thinking area for help.

And then we have the downstairs floor. You know about those people who live downstairs – always trouble. In this case, they are the feelers, the ones who look for danger at every turn. Scientifically known as the limbic system, they can make us want to run and hide, or put up a fight, but, deep down, they are always trying to keep us safe. Harrison calls these guys names like “Alerting Allie” and “Frightening Fred,” but again, you and your child can come up with names that make you both giggle with delight.

The idea is that once children have the language to label what is going on in their brains, then they can decide who is going to get to be in charge in any given situation. Maybe the downstairs tenants were up too late last night, and they are telling us to fear something that isn’t really happening. Then we can make the decision to put them to bed and call upon our upstairs friends for help. Conversely, maybe something really upsetting happened, and “Calming Carl” came in too soon, before “Alerting Allie” could really express how she felt.

One of the great things about this approach is that it gives kids a way to talk about their negative reactions to things without producing shame. For example, if a child became extremely afraid in a situation that wasn’t actually threatening, they can say that “Frightening Fred” really took over there. Learning to separate themselves from their emotional reactions is a great way to help little ones understand that they are not their emotions, and that their emotions do not have control over them.

If you would like more information on helping your kids learn to handle their emotions, contact us. We are here to help!