Tools to Teach Emotions

Updated Nov 21st, 2015. Affiliate links added for shopping ease.

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Toddlers are well-known for their tantrums. It’s one of the most common questions I’ve seen posted on parenting message boards, yet the advice on how to deal with tantrums is nearly as mixed as the advice on baby sleep:

“Don’t give in to the tantrum.”

“Talk them through it.”

“Do time ins!”

“Do time outs!”

In my quest to read through the various parenting books and learn as much as I could about parenting, I read through this one book which explained how tantruming is very normal and natural and they explained that it was due to toddler frustration, overwhelming emotions, and lack of good communication. At that point, I had read more than a few books on child development, and I remember wanting to yell, “Yes, yes, I understand why they tantrum, but what should I do?”

The advice to just wait until they outgrew it never made much sense to me either.

Thankfully, due to my autistic son’s behavior specialists and some great books (Kazdin’s The Everyday Parenting Toolkit for one), I learned about the concept of Replacement Behaviors or Positive Opposite Behaviors. Basically, the idea is to teach the behavior you want to see instead of waiting to either punish behavior you dislike or reward behavior you like. Since tantrums usually result from the inability to regulate and express emotions, teaching children how to do this and cultivate what’s known as ‘social-emotional intelligence’ and ’emotional self-regulation’ can greatly reduce or even eliminate them. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight!

Not does teaching emotional awareness and expression reduce tantrums, but multiple studies show the importance of social-emotional intelligence, even at a young age. For autistic children, this struggle to self-regulate emotions can be lifelong, as was found [i]n a survey of adults with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome[.]

“Gross, psychology postdoctoral scholar Andrea Samson and University of Fribourg psychology Professor Oswald Huber found that individuals with [autism spectrum disorder] consistently reported using less effective emotion regulation strategies than typically developing individuals.”

However, teaching emotions and emotional regulation, especially in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown, can be a daunting task. Thankfully, I’ve come across several great books and toys to help simplify the process. My boys are currently 3, so these suggestions are meant for those with a toddler’s understanding of emotions.

First, it’s important not to try to suppress emotions. My amazing Uncle Joe, who recently died of brain cancer, taught me the importance of accepting all emotions, even the difficult ones like fear, sadness, anger, etc. You can’t get rid of these emotions, either in yourself or in your child. Instead of trying to avoid them, it’s much more helpful to instead learn how to express them constructively. When discussing these emotions with my toddlers, I make it clear that it’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to express that anger in a destructive way.

In order for these emotional expression and calming tools to be most effective, it helps if you start using them outside of tantrums and meltdowns. When a child is in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown, it’s nearly impossible to learn new tasks. By putting these building blocks and descriptions of emotions in place before the tantrum occurs, it is easier for the child to use them. By practicing calming methods when your child is calm, it’s easier for the child to remember feeling calm with the method and thus find calm with the method.

Books

 

Calm-Down Time is my absolute favorite book on the subject. One day, my autistic Corwin was having trouble sharing when a friend came to visit. While it’s typical for 2 year olds to struggle with sharing when a different child is in what the toddler perceives as his or her turf, Corwin was becoming fixated on the girl’s actions and kept repeating, “Take our turns” over and over again no matter what the girl did. Sensing that he was agitated, I asked him if he wanted some Calm-Down Time. He said yes, so we went to our special place with soft pillows and our emotion books. I started reading this book to him and, on the first page, when we read the word ‘mad’, I asked him if he was feeling mad. He said, “yes” and I was beside myself with joy. His twin had been expressing his emotions for some time, but that was the first moment that Corwin had. As I read through the book and we came to the part with deep breaths, he started the breathing exercises before I finished reading the words. With the help of the book, he was able to calm down and we rejoined our friend for play.

After that, he started to ask for Calm-Down Time on his own. Although he still has tantrums, he comes out of them much easier and has started saying, “I’m mad” instead of immediately melting down. This has made a huge difference in our lives and there are now days where he doesn’t have a single tantrum, even though he will experience several things that make him upset.

It was also through this book that I discovered that each boy likes different calm-down techniques. Corwin prefers me to be with him and help him through his emotions. He loves deep, strong squeezes, to be wrapped up tightly in a blanket, or just to be held securely when he’s going through a difficult time.

On the other hand, his twin brother does not want my help. When I tried to offer various calming techniques to him while he was upset, he reacted the way some adults do when told to calm down.

“NO, I WON’T CALM DOWN! YOU CALM DOWN!”

Over time and with the help of the book, I found out that he needed his space when upset. He doesn’t want me to hug him, but he does like to give himself squeezes and he takes huge gulping breaths.

I absolutely love the Duck & Goose series and How Are You Feeling? is a great book that has one emotion attached to an image, so it’s very simple and great for young toddlers that are still learning to speak about emotions with a limited vocabulary. Although it is a simple book, my boys like talking about the images in details now that they are speaking in sentences.

 

I Am a Rainbow. We got this book free as part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which is a program that distributes books to young children free of charge. The Imagination Library is only available in certain countries and counties, but it has given us many wonderful books. I don’t think this book is the greatest, and I wouldn’t have bought it had I seen it in a store, but for some reason both of my boys absolutely love it. It was in this book that Corwin first began pointing out emotions in the character’s faces. Since it engages them, I’ve kept it on this list.

Lots of Feelings has several large pictures of children expressing different emotions. I like the clear images and several examples on each page, although some of the feelings, such as “thoughtful” are a bit above my boys right now. Alden absolutely loves to read it and I’ll ask him to make the faces of the various emotions along with me as we read through it, which he finds hilarious. My only complaint is that I feel some of the faces could be a bit more expressive.

Glad Monster, Sad Monster is a great book with masks you can wear to try out different emotions. If your children are like mine, then you’ll want to make copies of the masks before they get ripped or lost. At first, I felt a bit silly wearing the masks and talking about my own emotions, especially being sad or mad. As a parent, I sort of wanted to hide my sadness from the boys. I realized that it’s important for me to share my emotions to serve as an example. For sadness, I express how I get sad when I feel unloved. My son Alden always hugs and kisses me at this point, and then I ‘turn’ into a happy monster.

I think this book has helped a lot with discussions about general concerns and worries. Recently, while reading through this book, my son Alden spontaneously said that he feels sad when he misses me. We had a little chat about sadness when missing people and how I miss him when he’s away too. When we are out and about, I’ll sometimes ask my boys, “Does this make you feel like the orange monster?” as a way to check in with their emotions.

One word of warning. An image in the ‘worried’ section might be scary for some young children.

2015-11-21 14.36.05

The orange monster imagining what’s hiding under his bed.

My boys were both concerned about this image. We talked it through and they seem fine with it now, but they have beds that are basically flat against the floor. My boys recently turned 3 and I might hold off giving the book to impressionable younger children.

At 3, my boys also don’t seem to understand the difference between pretending to be a scary monster and being a scared monster. I suspect it will become more useful when they are older though.

 

My Many Colored Days might be confusing for some children because the colors with each emotion are different than in other books. In other books, red is associated with anger, but in this one, it’s associated with being a horse and kicking heals. I supposed the kicking might be considered an angered act, but that’s not very clear. If your children seem to do better with simplistic systems, then I’d skip this one. The art is very pretty though, and I love how it is shown how you can feel many things at once.

My Heart Is Like A Zoo is similar to My Many Colored Days in that it discusses a vast range of emotions that a person can hold. It’s a bit longer and has more emotions than My Many Colored Days and I recommend it for those with a bit more of an attention span. You could turn it into a more simplistic book by simply stating the emotion on each page, but due to the length and huge diversity of emotions, I recommend it for slightly older children or those obsessed with animals.

 

Toys

 

These Feelings FLASHCARDS are perfect for toddlers because they are quite heavy and difficult to bend or tear compared to many other options. There are more emotions depicted than many other emotion flashcard series, and I like that the ‘opposite’ emotion is printed on the back of each emotion. I do wish they also had a card for jealous, as that one seems to come up often in my home.

Eggspressions is a tool my mom found. I’m not a big fan of the book – I think it could be much better – but I love the eggs themselves. We play a game of matching the eggs to their stands as well as talk about the faces on their eggs. My son Alden loves the angry/mad egg. He tends to get frustrated more easily than  his twin and giving voice to his emotions has helped a lot.

These Feelings Playing Cards can be used for matching games or just playing with them as you would a normal set of cards. Since my boys can be destructive still, I haven’t use these as much as the others and I recommend them for the 3+ crowd.

2015-11-21 14.35.51

I bought this from Target in the $1 bin and, while I don’t recommend this exact spinner, I do recommend a system that allows you to regularly check in with your child about their emotions. In addition to the wheel, I also have felt faces, which I love for the ease of transport.

Don't make the mistake I made of writing on the back of the yellow one with a black sharpie

Don’t make the mistake I made of writing on the back of the yellow one with a black sharpie

The coloring of these faces is based on the Incredible 5 Point Scale. The incredible 5 point scale is a tool developed for autistic children to help with emotional regulation. The scale can be used for a wide variety of concepts outside of emotions, including voice volume control, anxiety level, personal space, etc.

The idea behind it is that there are various emotional levels that change in response to the environment. The green face is having a good time, the blue face is fine, the yellow face is starting to get stressed/worried, the orange face is upset, and the red face is exploding! You do regular emotional check ins with your child in potentially stressful situations and teach them to recognize their own emotional state as well as communicate with you when their emotions start moving into the yellow-orange-red zones. Through this tool, we discovered that there were times when my autistic son reported being ‘upset’ or ‘sad’ when we didn’t realize he was feeling such negative emotions. His behavior therapist uses this tool in school to identify stressful situations for him and to teach him to speak up and ask for help when he’s slipping into the yellow zone.

If you are starting out with this system, I recommend using bars on a piece of paper, since some children find the color system matched with faces confusing. My sons are used to yellow being happy and blue being sad, so I had to switch the final scale a bit because Corwin still refuses to see a blue face as a happy face.

Apps

 

Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings app available on android, iTunes, and other systems. I know a lot of parents are hesitant to introduce screen time for their toddlers, but I’m a big believer in restricting instead of avoiding screen time, as well as using whatever tools work. I prefer to keep electronics out of the Calm-Down Corner, since I like to focus on personal relationships and helping my boys work through their emotions instead of avoiding them, but I think this is a great app for talking about emotions and discussing different strategies of dealing with emotions outside of emotional flair ups. It also has a paint feature that, combined with a stylus, can make coloring on the go very easy.

A word of warning: I see some reviews saying that it doesn’t work very well on Nabi. We have it installed on our ipad and android samsung tablet and it works well on both of those.

 

 

While all of these have been very helpful, I’m always looking to expand my toolkit. I’d love to hear your suggestions for other products and books that help teach emotions and regulations.

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