Teaching Children How To Handle Their Emotions: As Simple As PIE

The following is a guest post by Angelica Perez-Litwin of Modern Familia.

As the mother of four children, ranging in ages from 1 to 16, on any given day I might be faced with temper tantrums, angry stumping, door slamming, or the silent treatment (typical among teenagers).  Helping my children appropriately manage and express their feelings is an important part of my day-to-day parenting. In fact, emotional regulation is essential for children’s overall wellbeing.  As parents, we can teach our children to handle their emotions in ways that validates their feelings, while fostering healthy interactions with the world.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is a fancy term used to describe the ability to process and express a range of emotions, and react in appropriate ways in emotional situations.  Emotional regulation is often conceptualized as a set of skills that can be taught and learned.  The ability to appropriately handle emotions can impact children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. For example:

Children with good emotional regulation skills:

  • Are able to experience, express and manage a range of emotions
  • Adjust well to transitions and new situations
  • Engage in appropriate behaviors in response to emotional situations
  • Show a high tolerance for frustration

Children with poor emotional regulation skills:

  • May exhibit a limited range of emotions
  • Have difficulties coping with stressful experiences
  • May engage in outbursts of negative emotions
  • May show aggressive or ego-centric behaviors (depending on their age)
  • Are less socially competent, in general
  • Are often less successful in school — they show difficulties learning, and are less productive in the classroom.

Parents as Teachers:  The PIE Approach

Parents can effectively teach their children to manage their emotions by helping them to process, identify and appropriately express their emotions.  I call this the PIE approach.  Over the years, I have found it to be quite helpful.

The First Step:  Help Your Child Process Her Feelings

How many times have you asked your school age child, “how do you feel about that…?” and gotten a completely blank look?  Often, young and older children (including adolescents) are unaware of their feelings because they fail to appropriately process their reaction to an emotional situation.

You can help your child get in touch with his feelings by asking questions like “What did you feel when your friend made fun of you in front of the class?” or by offering: “I would have felt angry if my teacher had hollered at me that way.”  Encouraging children to openly discuss the emotionally arousing situation can also help process what they’re feeling.

Step Two:  Help Your Child Identify What He’s Feeling

Identifying and labeling emotions is an important component of emotional regulation. Children who have a large vocabulary of names for feelings are better able to express their emotions using language, rather than behaviors.  As early as two years old, children are able to learn names of feelings.  The following tips are helpful tips:

  • Name your feelings game: Use games or creative ways to teach your child the names of a range of emotions.
  • Use your words: Redirect negative behaviors and remind your child to use words to explain what they are feeling and need.
  • Suggest phrases: Provide examples of phrases your child can effectively use in emotional situations, such as “I was playing with that toy, can I have it back?”
  • Use Books: There are wonderful books that focus on dealing with emotions, for children of all ages.  These books offer opportunities to discuss emotions from a safe distance.
  • Use Posters with Emotions Faces: These posters help children learn how to recognize other people’s emotions and facial expressions, an important component to identifying emotions in others and in oneself.

Step 3:  Help Your Child Appropriately Express His Feelings

Children fail to express their emotions verbally because they lack the vocabulary, or are too emotional to use them, or are afraid of expressing them.  Here are some helpful tips and exercises:

  • Give permission to feel and express emotions:  Children need to feel they are safe in feeling and expressing negative emotions, especially with shy children.
  • Show and Tell: Guide your child and show them how they can express their feelings.  Use examples, phrases and scenarios.
  • Use Art: Encourage your child to draw, color or sculpt their feelings.
  • Encourage Writing: The simple act of writing down their feelings is a powerful way to express emotions, especially in older children.  Use poetry, song writing or short-stories.
  • Be a Role Model: As with everything else, parents are powerful role models to their children. Practicing responsible emotional management is a fundamental part of teaching your child the life-long valued skill of handling emotions.

How do you help your children handle negative emotions?

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  1. I think being a role model is key. I know when I lose my temper or even just slip into sarcasm, I often hear that echoed by my children. Those young eyes and ears are always watching me for cues on how to behave and handle strong emotions.

    I love the outlets you mention for emotions, including writing and drawing. With my four year old we’ve been trying to get him to draw more – even as simple as “what color are you feeling like today?” and I know that keeping a journal has been helpful to my oldest, too.

    Great post! Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Angelica! Such a good way to remember the process, too: P.I.E. is going to stick with me 🙂
    Kara Fleck´s latest post: Teaching Children How To Handle Their Emotions- As Simple As PIE

  2. Awesome post! With a 4 year old and a 2 1/2 year old, some days all I feel I do is work on how to handle emotions. My 4 year old has done really well with concrete suggestions and then practice about what to do when she is angry-take a few slow breaths, walk away from the problem, scripted language. She even reminded me to breathe yesterday when I was getting fairly frustrated with the broken vacuum cleaner! Now to work on the two year old:)

  3. Whew, I really needed this post! We’ve been dealing with some angry outbursts from my soon-to-be 5yo and I want to help him get them in check before he heads to school (this fall).

    Obviously, I need to work on keeping cool myself. This post stung a bit, but only because I haven’t been towing the line…

    Thanks for the pointers on how to get started. OK, deep breaths!
    Aimee @ Simple Bites´s latest post: Pursuing Your Passion For Pickles Recipe- Garlic-Dill Pickles

  4. Great post Angelica! Teaching social-emotional skills is critical yet rather daunting. You broke it down into simple, easy to follow steps. Thanks for the great tips!
    Amanda Morgan´s latest post: The Power of the Memorable Scene

  5. “be a role model” is something that I struggle with. Thanks for all the great tips.

    I’m going to start using writing with my 10 year old so he can express his emotions.

  6. This is so great, it seems like the whole human race could start paying attention to this and we’d all be better off. No more fight or flight . . . no more warring . . . but people working together and actually helping one another. Folks might also like this: http://acornandrose.blogspot.com/2010/01/interview-with-sherrie-loertscher.html
    and part two: http://acornandrose.blogspot.com/2010/02/living-beyond-tyrantvictim-control-part.html

  7. My daughter is very emotional, just like her parents. And this is not a negative thing. We are passionate, involved people. But I do notice her sometimes incapable of labeling her feelings.

    Drawing close to her and spending time with her has been my greatest asset in aiding her in the discovery of her own emotions.
    Joseph Nally´s latest post: Make Her Sorry To See You Leave

  8. Joseph, does your daughter naturally gravitates towards art work when she’s upset? Or is this something you guide her towards? My oldest daughter is most happy and peaceful when she paints — it’s a cathartic experience for her. As a little girl, she would spend hours just drawing and using colors…

    Thanks for sharing!
    Angelica @ Modern Familia´s latest post: Guest Post at Simple Kids! Teaching Children How to Handle Their Emotions- As Simple as PIE

  9. My sons are older now and are pretty good at identifying their emotions. I like the idea of encouraging them to write when they’re feeling something they’re struggling with, since that’s what I naturally navigate to myself. I’ll get them each a simple composition book to keep as a “journal/diary”. They usually cost around a quarter each, but I have a feeling they’ll be invaluable.

    Thanks, Angelica!
    Tracy López´s latest post: Adiós conejitos

  10. Thanks, Angelica. My 6 yo definitely has some strong emotions and I have noticed her being embarrassed about some of them. I need to help her recognize and identify them so that she can accept and express them without reservation. We will be sure to use PIE to help her!
    Monica´s latest post: Win an Adventure Prize Pack from Nature Valley

  11. We also work really hard not to label emotions as “good” or “bad” and tell my 3 year old, “It’s okay to be angry” and “It’s okay to be frustrated.” We just often have to follow up with, “It’s not okay to hit mom, but if you are angry you can….” That helps with both identifying and processing his emotions.
    Alissa´s latest post: Lagging

  12. Thanks for making this simple Angelica! I have a tendency to forget the “process” piece and go straight into identifying, but I know kids feel so much better when they can talk about the situation.
    One thing I have taken from my coach training and applied to my kids is asking my kids where they feel the emotion in their bodies. I have found that many adults lose touch with the information their bodies are communicating to them and I’d like to prevent this disconnect in my girls. Thanks again!

  13. Maura, the “process” part was one that I really wanted to bring in to this conversation. So glad you found that helpful!
    Angelica @ Modern Familia´s latest post: Guest Post at Simple Kids! Teaching Children How to Handle Their Emotions- As Simple as PIE

  14. This is such important information!

    I am learning about non-violent communication, and reflecting on all the habits of communicating I have developed in my own life!

    I really hope to teach my daughter to be able to articulate her feelings and her needs!
    Just Plain Joy´s latest post: Central Coast Baby Saves Mommy’s Life

  15. Well said! I see my granddaughter at almost 3 getting mad and frustrated easily at things that never used to bother her before. She’s quick to get angry when she can’t figure out where a puzzle piece goes and other simple things like that. She’s becoming very good at verbally expressing how she’s feeling so we can talk about it. Thanks for the refresher course!
    Tina @ Ride On Toys´s latest post: The Power Wheels Harley Davidson Rocks!

  16. Hi Tina, You bring up a good point. Language skills makes a bi difference. You’ll notice that the more they are able to communicate verbally, the less easily frustrated they get. Language facilitates that emotional expression.
    Angelica @ Modern Familia´s latest post: Weekend Links- BlogHer Awesome New Friends!

  17. Thanks so much for these great suggestions! I think it is so important to help give kids “words” (disappointed, lonely, embarrassed, surprised, happy) to go with their feelings. Even some adults need help with that! 😉

  18. The “games or creative ways” link isn’t working for me. Did anyone else have any problems?

    This was so timely for me. Chloe is 3 1/2 and lately she’s been very emotional and we’re working to help her vocalize how she is feeling rather than just wailing or striking out.

  19. Great post and catchy name, which makes it easier to remember.

    You’d expect schools to provide emotional support, but when a child had a hard time, school usually makes it worse when grades start falling behind and the pressure is mounted. Balancing the emotions at home is the certainly right answer.
    Family Matters´s latest post: Why Can’t You Do It

  20. Thanks Angelica for the information! I have (2) daughters 3yrs. and 4yrs. and I was wanting to teach them to how to become more familiar with their feeling. This information helped me out tremendously!

    Thanks again!
    A concerned Dad…

  21. Great tips. i have a three year old daughter who is finding herself! I use a lot of these suggestions which I find work really well. Empowering them with words and helping them to understand it is okay to feel certain things as long as we acknowledge them and work to allow them to pass through.
    I am a teacher and find these work well with my students as well.

  22. Thanks for these great tips, I know I will be able to use them. I too have 4 kids ages 2-16. My almost 5 year old is driving us crazy bcuz he still has meltdowns every time he doesn’t get his way he is also my only shy and somewhat sensitive child. He is usually sweet and passive but when he gets really upset there is NO talking to him.

  23. I am a nanny of two children and I am in their lives almost more than their parents are. They both have trouble expressing their emotions and I am having a hard time getting through to the parents with ways to manage the outbursts. Both parents act as ridiculous role models to their kids. Storming around and hitting (playfully, not not appropriately) and a lot of sarcasm are their main defenses. I’m not sure how to combat the problem without being combative! I am working with the kids to share their emotions with me and I seem to be making progress. We have a picture with choices for how to react to problems and it seems to help them decide how they want to deal with their emotions. How do I get the parents on board this train?

  24. I have often wondered why my mum could not teach me how to speak from the heart. It’s her way of telling me , she herself has been taught not not speak from the heart. She is now 83 years old and I can tell you, her ways have helped her survived poverty, the war and changes in the urban environment where she lives.

    On of the biggest lessons I learned is that children typically have no time to dwell in negative emotions. Their job is to grow. So they will, always find something to do. “The idle mind is a devil’s worship.” Kids have no interest in idling, they are interested to live. My mum lives simply, prays constantly and works profusely. She does not work to earn money, she works to keep her body fit and her mind active. So do kids.

    In those days when people have less modern conveniences, there is less need to speak from the heart ( emotion ). There is work to be done; the living has to live. When we get more comfortable with the way we live, own bedroom, own bathroom, own wardrobe, vacuum cleaners, television , we simply get more idle. There is a lot to do and yet we become lazier.

    To teach a child how to express themselves begins with work, teach them to make their own room, wash up the dishes, pack their schoolbags, cook in the kitchens, respect their elders and teachers. There are a lot of wisdom in experiencing practical life than just talk alone. From their hands, they shall develop intelligence and the wisdom to express themselves, whether by talking, singing or just drawing,
    Hanifa K.Cook´s latest post: Is Your Voice An Instrument? Nicole Scherzinger & Simon Cowell Discuss

  25. Well broken down for all the newbie parents keep up the good work!

  26. Great article!
    As adults we often forget that our role is not onlly to discipline chidren but
    to ask them about their emotions and feelings. It is very important to help your child to feel safe to share their feelings.
    I would suggest to parents not to react if you do not like your child’s feeling.
    Sometimes it can be really upsetting if a child expresses some negative feelings towards you or other family members. Be supportive and understanding. You can correct the language that your child uses, ask him what triggered such emotion and in some cases to explain how it could look from a side from another person, so he is able to correct his “story”.
    Art as part of expression is very helpfull for kids, however if your child does not want to draw or sculpt his emotion, you migh show him a way of expressing emotions in the dance. It is very good as well to get rid of negative emotions by dancing or doing yoga or even just jumping and running.
    Another way to calm and control your emotions that parents can teach their kids is visualization. Visualization can help from the moment that a child regonises that he has a negative emotion or after the fact. There is ni rule what to visualize: it can be visualization of something that changes child likes and this will transform a negative emotion to a positive one, or it can be a visualization how the negative emotion is washed out and disappearing. Anything that your child comes up with will be helpfull for him, since it is his idea how to calm down and control himself and this is his imagination.
    Some images that do not make any sense to you might be great for your child!

  27. This is great information! I really learned a lot from this article and I feel that the readers of my blog would benefit greatly from reading it! I run a blog for stay-at-home moms. Would you mind if I reposted this on my blog for them? Please email me at daisies0999(at)yahoo(dot)com and let me know! Thank you so much!
    Tammy Allgood-Hemmerling´s latest post: Win $120 with ContestChest.com! *Rafflecopter entry!*

  28. Great post, I agree that being a role model is so important. I’ve been so suprised at how my little one has copied my reactions to things (and not always the positive ones) and I realise that I have to set a good example, especially controlling my frustratitions and staying more patient. I will certainly implement the other tips too as he gets older.

  29. Vicky Torres says:

    Thanks a lot. You can’t imagine how helpful has been for me to find this article. Being a role model is so important. Your post is a “must read” for parents

  30. Valerie Hemler says:

    As a student of psychology, seeking to become a child therapist, I am always interested in helping children. I love play therapy and art therapy. I found a catalogue called “Uncommon Goods” that actually has little plush emotions characters with the emotions in words on the back and the faces on the front that express that particular emotion. They also have the emotion monster to “eat up the emotions” when you are finished with this little game. I believe the whole thing was no more than $30. The little children really like it, and, it helps them to understand what it is they are feeling. As we adults sometimes forget, some young children do not have the vocabulary to tell us how they are feeling. These little emotional creatures really help the children express themselves. If anyone wants a picture of these things, let me know by email and I will be happy to share one!!

  31. This is such relevant advice. I often wonder how I spent so much time learning the multiplication tables and logarithms and why did I never learn this information on processing emotions…for myself as well as those in my family!!! Such important knowledge for ANYONE, thanks for sharing your tips.
    Angi´s latest post: Why we go undiagnosed…

  32. Maple Grandma says:

    Wonderful advise, as a grandma of a 3-3/4 year old,
    it helped me to update my parenting skills.

    from snowy Vermont
    Maple Grandma

  33. Good post! I love these ideas. I work with a lot of children who have difficulty accessing their higher cognitive levels of language during periods of heightened emotion. Touch cues (a hand on their back, a hug, etc., depending on the kid) can help bring them back down to a focused state. I also like to use visuals: a picture of a mad or sad face, which can help a child even if they don’t have the langauge to express themselves. I model the words they would use to express themselves: “I’m frustrated!”
    Hillary´s latest post: Upcoming seminar on Anxiety in Kids ~ Portland area

    • I\’m struggling with an 11 year old son who is very disconnected from his emotions. He has a very small range of emotions and is king of the blank stares about his feelings. He had a horrible year at his last school (a principal who used every opportunity to keep him in her office for any infraction) and my son prefers to just not talk about the past. I struggle with knowing how much to bring up some of the past incidents in order to help him move on as I don\’t know what he did with all the anger he\’s stifled? Granted, he doesn\’t seem as angry as in the past, but how did he process all that rage and anger about the witchy principal

      • Dear Lila, you might find help in the book Children, the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs. It’s an old book but very insightful.


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