From Emotional Tantrums to Emotional Intelligence | Guiding your Child toward Calm and Control

Tantrums. Non-compliance. Hitting. Screaming. Throwing objects.

As a Mental Health Counselor for toddlers and preschoolers, these are undoubtedly the most common struggles of the parents who want services. Indeed, even observing my current experience and the general discussion I see on Facebook, these are the number one concerns among parents nose-deep in this stage. After all, they don’t call them “Terrible Two’s” for nothing.  I certainly do not plan to write-up a magical “how-to parent” discourse here, or at all for that matter, because there’s no single “right” way. But here is the one thing that all parents can do with their children that will equip children to handle the emotional roller coaster (cough*and parents*cough) experience during this stage: Build Emotional Intelligence.

Of course, in almost all of the homes I go into I teach basic behavior modification techniques to parents, including positive reinforcement, discipline methods, consistency, etc.  However in almost all cases, there is one thing that is painfully lacking in the child’s understanding of his or her world: emotions. Emotions are a huge driving force of behavior (if not the biggest in such young children), yet I am starting from scratch with a majority of my kids. So if you want to help your child prevent, control, or recover from his or her emotional overload: teach them about emotions. Here’s how:

First, NAME emotions. All the time. in you, in them, in cartoons, in books. all day. Whenever you see a character crying, you can say to your toddler, “Oh, he’s sad” in a sad tone. Happy, mad, scared, jealous, excited… all of them! Find a label and use it consistently, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your toddler will begin to identify and relate to them! This can be a helpful method for all children to learn basic emotions, even those on the Autism Spectrum.

Second, TEACH emotions by engaging the child with activities. Have them copy your facial expressions while naming the emotions. Find whole-body postures and play a game! Then advance to projection-style games like “How do you feel if someone… takes your cookie?” and have them select an expression that has been laid in front of them. (Hello, Pinterest! Also, the movie “Inside Out” is FANtastic for personifying emotions for our little concrete thinkers! Check out these accompanying resources: Feeling Wheel, Board Game, Matching game, etc,)

Third, INTEGRATE the developing emotional intelligence into daily life. Print a feeling wheel and keep it somewhere accessible to the child. (This is especially handy when they are too upset for words but could maybe point to the emotion). Say “use your words” or “how do you feel?” when you see emotion starting to build. Now I am fully aware that children can end up in a rage/fit/tantrum and there is no amount of reasoning that will help. That’s okay. Stay nearby to monitor for safety and take deep breaths to model calming skills (it helps keep your from blowing your top, too!). Once they come down a few notches, name the emotion for them or have them do it.

Teaching these skills will build a foundation of healthy conceptualization:

1.)  Emotions are normal. Everyone has them and they are helpful in life.

2.)  Emotions can overwhelm, but I can prevent that and/or calm myself down.

3.)  Emotions are not to be feared or stymied. I can express them in healthy and safe ways.

A few final tips: Once you have laid the foundation of EIQ, you can teach coping skills! A few I’ve found helpful in the 2-4 age range: Counting up or down, singing ABC’s and/or “Happy Birthday”, taking a sit-down break, but my number one technique is breathing: “Superhero” breathing, where you flex your muscles on inhale, relax your arms on exhale. Many of my boys love “Spiderman Breathing”, where exhale involves shooting the webs from his hands, or blowing out birthday candles on your finger (great to match with “Happy Birthday” song).

At home, Kailey is a wife of 5 years and mother to a tiny 2-year-old live wire. Professionally, she is a Mental Health Counselor to children, specializing in the early childhood population. As she moves toward state licensure, Kailey is working with low-income families to help improve relational, emotional, and behavioral functioning in preschoolers through K5. She believes firmly in striving for love, humility, and faithfulness in all aspects of life, and is so happy to have a motherhood community with whom to share in those goals.


Photo by Sara Ernst