This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for details.
Looking for emotional regulation activities for kids? Many parents will probably come here looking for the solutions to calm down big emotions. It’s not surprising; meltdowns, periods of sullenness, and bursts of anger can be really hard to handle as a parent. They can be even harder to handle without getting caught up in your kid’s emotional storm with them.
So for everyone’s sake, learning to support emotional regulation in children needs to be more than a band-aid over the problem. We’ll definitely get to things like breathing strategies, but before you can think about deescalating, you need to help your kid look at the root of the problem. Most executive functioning problems can be related to attention, and emotional regulation is no different. Kids with ADHD, autism, anxiety, PTSD, and other diagnoses often aren’t paying attention to their emotional state, and they get surprised by these huge waves of emotion that seem to come out of nowhere.
Also- quick disclaimer- I’m not a trained therapist. I’m just a former teacher and current parent who’s dealt with many kids with emotional dysregulation, trauma, and executive dysfunction. While none of these strategies I’m about to talk you through could harm your child, it’s always good to talk things through with a therapist for the most personalized advice.
With all that out of the way, let’s jump right in. There are three steps to healthy emotional regulation in children: naming emotions, finding the source, and managing them appropriately. For each step I’ll discuss what it is, then offer you some emotional regulation activities for kids that you can play with your children or students. Hopefully, you’ll start seeing improvements soon!
Considerations Before You Start Emotional Regulation Activities for Kids
Make sure you’ve created an open environment for talking about feelings. If you’ve been trying to just squelch any displays of their emotion, big or small, that may have sent the message that emotions aren’t something we talk about. If feelings have until now been something to hide, stuff, or get rid of, your child will have a hard time discussing them with you without feeling panicked or like they’re doing something wrong. They need to know their emotions are okay, even the big and scary ones, and they can learn to control what they do with those emotions.
To open the lines of communication, you can start with yourself. Describe how you’re feeling throughout the day, and verbally walk yourself (and listening ears) through your management strategy. This might look something like…
“Oh man, I’m so mad at that big truck who cut me off. I just want to punch the steering wheel. That wasn’t fair! But instead, I’m going to take some deep breaths/think about the beach/etc.”
Okay! Let’s move on to the activities.
For children with executive dysfunction, it can be very overwhelming to suddenly feel so much like the Hulk. They often feel unable to sift through all the emotions swirling around their heart and head, so they act out to relieve some of that uncomfortable energy.
The first step is teaching emotions, their names, and what each physically feels like in the body. Anger might feel like a need to clench fists, nervousness might feel like sweaty palms and fast breathing, embarrassment might feel like flushed cheeks, etc. Every kid is a little different, but there are some generalities. Once they know what an emotion feels like, they’ll have an easier time naming it the next time it comes along.
Emotional regulation activities for kids: Naming Emotions
Make a “feelings bank”
On some calm morning, have your child write down every emotion they can think of ever feeling. No emotion should get forgotten, even if they might be something you’re not used to talking about. (Looking at you, parents of teenagers!) Then, next to each emotion, have your child list all the physical sensations they associate with each emotion. Go ahead and post this list somewhere they’ll see it frequently, like on their closet door or by a bathroom mirror.
Over the course of a week or month, repeatedly go back to the list and add to it.. I suggest doing this over a period of time because doing this all at once can sometimes lead to overwhelm. Alternatively, your child might forget their reaction to a certain emotion until they experience it a while later.
Do a full body scan
This activity involves your child sitting or standing still and closing their eyes. Then, starting with the tip of their head, ask them to pay attention to any sensations they’re experiencing. If their head feels normal, have them continue lowering their attention to their face, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, hands, etc. and all the way down to their toes.
If they come to a place where the recognize a unique sensation, like a rapidly beating heart or feet that feel like they need to tap or bounce, great! Your child can then use those sensations and match them up with the work they did in their feelings bank to accurately name the emotion. Studies show that even short times of this kind of meditation can help kids be more resilient and able to cope with big feelings when they arise.
Act it out
If your child has a flair for the dramatic, they might benefit from acting out different emotions like a game of charades. Have them pick the name of an emotion out of a had or basket, then see if you can guess what emotion they’re acting out.
Talk it out
Have feelings become regular dinner table conversations. Start by asking everyone at the table to describe an emotion they felt that day, how it made them feel physically, and what they did with the emotion. But don’t give in to the urge to lecture about how they could have done better (if they struggled to regulate)! That’s a surefire way to clam them up next time. Instead, praise them for their accurate description and remember which emotion they struggled with to help them with at another time.
Finding the Emotional Source
For children with attention problems, emotional storms can seemingly come out of nowhere. Little do our kids realize that the skipped snack, bad test grade, and peer rejection in dodgeball that they forgot about all contributed to a meltdown at dinnertime.
When trying to improve emotional regulation in children, it’s essential to teach them to find the source of their emotions. Once they can identify, “hey, I feel angry,” they can learn to think back on what happened recently to trigger that emotion. (If you suspect there’s something deeper than everyday occurrences underneath emotional outbursts, take a minute to learn about trauma and triggers and then consult with a professional if necessary.) Here are some activities to try.
Emotional regulation activities for kids: Finding the Emotional Source
Play CBT Games
CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is an excellent tool for helping kids modify patterns of behavior. There are many emotions games out there, but the ones from Playing CBT are some of the best. Getting the box opens up a ton of different games designed to help your child (4+) improve their understanding of emotions and (skipping ahead to step three) how to accept and live with theirs.
For children who can write, keeping a daily journal can be an excellent way to reflect on the events of the day. An entry as simple as, “Late to school, got an extra snack with lunch, played football with friends, did math homework and remembered to pack geometry project before bed” can work. As a bonus, this kind of activity is also great for children trying to improve their time management skills and working memory abilities.
We have a journal called My Worry Book for kids who primarily struggle with stresses and anxieties. For children who struggle with all types of emotional regulation, this bullet journal would be a better choice for daily journaling.
Learn to HALT
Oftemtimes, emotional outbursts can get stopped in their tracks when kids lean to “HALT” first. HALT stands for Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness. Before a kid continues with any self-destructive behavior, they should first check to see if they’re hungry, either for physical food or more intangible things like affection, affirmation, or understanding. They also might be angry, or lonely (which can happen either alone or in a group they don’t feel understood in) or tired.
Managing Emotions Appropriately
Lastly, kids need to know how to manage their emotions in order to regulate well. Part of this is assessing how “big a deal” each event is. Having a pet pass away is a much more appropriate time to sob for an hour than snapping a pencil, for example.
Emotional regulation activities for kids: Managing Emotions Appropriately
Work Out the Extra Energy
Especially for high energy emotions like anger and fear, physical sensations help manage emotions appropriately. Here’s a list of activities kids can do to redirect all that energy in safe, healthy ways:
- Go run around
- Punch a pillow
- Pull up/push up contest
- Squeeze a stress ball or some playdoh
- Use a sensory toy
- Put on some boots and stomp around in the snow or a sandbox
Breathwork practice can be helpful for all kids to learn, but especially those with executive functioning problems. I’ve talked more about different styles of breathwork in a previous article about anxiety activities, so be sure to check that out!
Learn a New Hobby
For a lot of kids with executive dysfunction, it can be really easy to engage them in something novel and fresh. If this sounds like your child, maybe it’s time to introduce them to a new creative pursuit. Music, art, and dance are all excellent strategies for transforming those emotions into something tangible and sharable.
For more reading on this topic:
- Prioritization Activities: 10 Tips & Games for School and Home
- Impulse Control Activities for Kids (And What WON’T Work)
- Accommodations for Autism: 21 Best Recommendations for Learning
- Teaching Kids with Special Needs
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.