I have a lengthy list of positive skills I was taught while growing up, but noticing and processing emotions weren’t one of them. When it came to feelings, I was:
1) told they were silly
2) sent messages that mine weren’t allowed, and
3) left to my own devices to figure them out.
I am now 35 and still working on my social-emotional development. If that wasn’t enough, I have two toddler sons looking to me to navigate their feeling sensations, too. And, let me tell ya, it is not easy business when you weren’t taught the skills yourself.
If you feel like you are learning about emotional regulation right alongside your child, it’s because, very likely, you are. This isn’t anything to shame our parents for. Social-emotional skills have been devalued, hushed, and overlooked for generations. But thanks to mounting research, we now know the real benefits of nurturing a child’s emotional intelligence.
As important as the research is, any child or adult who was isolated and punished for the human experience of feeling, can tell you, this is important stuff. We have 68,000 thoughts a day, and most of those elicit some type of emotion influenced by the limitations of our physical senses, beliefs, and expectations. That’s a lot of thoughts and emotions passing through. And when we don’t know how to channel them, it can be pretty overwhelming. Insert child - and adult - tantrums.
So, for me, the question was never “is this important” but rather “how the heck do I do it?”
What Is A Feelings Chart
The answer came to me in two words: Feelings Chart.
Often, children (and adults) don’t even know what emotion they’re feeling so they simply react to the physiological responses their body is having. We either attack, run away, or shut down. These lower brain impulses are automatic as our body responds to the stressor - an innate brain adaptation to keep us safe.
Ever get so triggered by your children’s bickering that you yell - like it literally bubbles out of you before you can even think about it? Or, ever feel the force of your toddler’s hand as they hit you, melting because they’re overtired and overstimulated? That’s the company of your lower brain.
Our children are wired to have one pure thought and emotion at a time, so when they feel it, they really feel it. When children don’t have an outlet to communicate what’s wrong, what they want and need, and the emotions they are experiencing, it alerts the lower brain to jump into action.
Feeling charts are a way to teach children about emotions so that they can recognize their bodily sensations, process and communicate them. In doing so, new neurological connections are made, linking the lower reactive brain to the higher learning brain. This means, instead of hitting you when they are dysregulated, they can better access effective calming strategies.
Using A Feelings Chart To Teach Emotions
Pinterest is loaded with feelings charts but if you are a parent like me, then you like organized and neat. I wanted something that I could open the box and, voila, a feelings chart with a set of instructions. That’s why, when I found the Time-In ToolKit, I went gaga. It literally had the feelings posters, mantra cards, and activities right there for us to jump in. Here’s how:
1. Create a space
The first step is to create a calming space with your child. Find an area within your home that is visible and easy to access. Hang your feelings posters on the wall and then make it cozy with bean bags, pillows, stuffed animals, and calming and sensory tools of your child’s choosing. This may include squishy toys, a weighted blanket, paper to tear, books, puzzles, coloring tools, and more.
2. Create connection
Before ever using the space for a discipline moment, peak your child’s natural curiosity through connection-based play. Some ideas include:
- Take turns mimicking the faces on the poster to one another or in a mirror.
- Play feelings BINGO.
- Read age-appropriate books, taking intentional pauses to chat about what happened, how the characters feel, and what they could do differently.
- Review calming strategies and practice them together.
As your child becomes intrinsically motivated to be in the space during regulated moments, he will feel safer to go there during dysregulated moments, too.
3. Create rituals
Another useful way to help your child feel more comfortable using their calming space is to create rituals. Because rituals communicate safety to the immature mind, this is a great way to speak to their higher brain. Each night before bed, come together as a family around your feelings posters and take turns sharing when you felt happy, sad, calm, and mad throughout your day. As your child expands her comfortability, she may add in other emotions such as joyful, tired, grateful, and scared.
4. Create learning
Because more is caught than taught, model using the calming space yourself during big feelings, selecting an emotion and calming strategy. As you de-escalate, you can better respond to your escalating child. Guide your child in noticing his feeling states, validate his emotional experience, and guide him in using a calming strategy. Set boundaries if needed to redirect behaviors. As your child moves from his lower brain to his higher brain, you can revisit what happened, what he can do next time, and make amends if needed.
Emotional regulation is a skill, so it requires practice and training wheels from the adults in their lives. And if you are anything like me - a parent who wasn’t taught anything beyond suppressing and gaslighting - then you and your children are on a near-level playing field, doing it together. And guess what, that’s totally okay.