Help Kids Develop Coping Strategies for When Big Feelings Come

Empowering kids to create their own coping strategies allows them to take ownership of their bodies and minds while building emotional intelligence.

Help Kids Develop Coping Strategies for When Big Feelings Come

We all face a variety of emotions and feelings each day. Sometimes they are enjoyable, like the feeling of happiness when spending time with a loved one. And sometimes they are not, like when we are unfairly blamed for something we did not do.

As adults, we have learned the skills to control our reactions and behavior when we experience unpleasant feelings. But learning to self-regulate our emotions was not a skill we had when we were born – it was developed through practice and co-regulation with other safe adults.

Children must also be taught how to manage their own emotions. We can help them learn this skill by explaining the role the brain plays in our emotions and giving them the tools to cope when big feelings come. Beyond the learning, they can practice this critical skill by watching us do it.

The Role of the Brain in our Emotions and Behavior

The amygdala is the fear center of the brain. Its goal is to protect us and alert us to danger. It fires when we’re angry, scared, overwhelmed, jealous, embarrassed, and a host of other feelings. When we feel those big emotions, we’re likely to make poor decisions if unable to regulate.

In the book, Felix and the Feelings Formulas, Felix experiences many of those big feelings as he goes throughout his day. He finds that by creating formulas (coping strategies), he can better handle those emotions and not let his amygdala take over.

Empowering kids to create their own coping strategies allows them to take ownership of their bodies and minds. It gives them the opportunity to be curious about their own triggers and explore the actions and mindfulness practices that work for them.

How to Create Formulas (Coping Strategies) to Handle Big Feelings

Before creating a formula, first make a list of big feelings that we all experience from time to time (examples: anger, fear, sadness, jealousy, frustration, confusion, grief, rejection). Talk about how those emotions feel in their body (examples: racing heart, pressure on chest, headache).

Next, ask kids to recall times when they felt those emotions (examples: being left out by friends, giving a presentation at school, missing a parent when gone on a business trip). This exercise teaches children to identify their emotions and builds emotional intelligence.

Now they are ready to create a formula that helps them handle those big feelings. Use the Make Your Own Formula Worksheet to guide you. These are the “ingredients” that should be in each formula:

  1. Movement – Our feelings are connected to our body, so find some way to move or use your body first. Choose movements that feel good and are easy for you to do. (Examples: wiggle fingers, pat leg, stretch.)
  2. Take action – Sometimes uncomfortable feelings can make us feel stuck, so include a way to take one tiny step forward in your coping strategy. Taking action might mean asking yourself or someone else a question, looking for an adult to help, labeling the feeling, using your imagination, making a choice, etc.
  3. Affirmations (words) – Thinking or speaking positive words about yourself can improve self-esteem, confidence, and promote emotional wellbeing. Affirmations can help train your brain to think and see yourself more positively. End your strategy by saying or thinking something extraordinary about yourself. (Examples: I am strong, I am safe, I am wonderful just the way I am.)

Practicing strategies can make them easier to use when needed. Remind children that they have control over the strategies they use. If one isn’t working, change it and try something new.

Brain Science Helps Kids Learn Social-Emotional Skills

Understanding how the brain works gives kids the ability to be in control of their thoughts and actions. Knowing where behavior comes from encourages kids to listen to their bodies, helps them understand their brains, and empowers them to make better decisions for years to come.


This information was compiled from Felix and the Feelings Formulas by Kate Bartlein, Your Amazing Brain by Jessica Sinarski, and How to Crack Your Peanut by Allison Edwards.

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