Supporting Kids in Developing Emotion Stories

One of the most common areas of skill development that Child Psychologists work in is supporting children and young people in developing emotion regulation skills.  Emotion regulation skills are those skills that we use to manage our feelings and ensure that we make helpful action choices in times of emotional distress.  

Research has, time and again, demonstrated that these skills are necessary for success in life at all levels.

Emotion regulation skills are a spectrum of skills and begin with the very basic level of understanding that ‘I am having an emotional experience.’  Building from there, skills develop that are associated with identifying what the emotion is, understanding its purpose and responding to it appropriately.  

The goal for more child psychologists is to help them understand that there is a reason for feeling the emotion that they are experiencing.  I like to call this “emotion stories”.  

Teaching this skill in therapy comes after first working with a child and ensuring they are able to understand that they are having an emotional experience, and then being able to identify or label what that experience is (for example scared or sad).  

If I can then, as a child or young person, explain to a trusted adult the story behind that emotion (e.g. the reason I am having it), that adult is then better able to support me in either working through the emotion (emotion coaching) or helping me problem solve the issue that brought about the reaction.

For example, a young child may be worried about a friend coming over and playing with their favourite toys. 

A typical response to this might be to tell Mum and Dad that they don’t want their friend to come over, without actually explaining the reason for this. 

If a child can (at a rudimentary level) say: “Mummy I feel scared that Sam will break my toy” – an opportunity is created in which the skill of problem solving can then be supported by Mum (or the adult in the scenario).  

In my house we talk about “strong feelings”, and my kids are used to talking to me about having “strong feelings”.  They may not be able to describe the feeling exactly, but it is a good place to start.  

So how can you develop this skill in your child? 

Firstly, talking about the emotion stories related to yourself or other people is a good first step. 

You might say “Mummy is feeling worried because she has a lot of work to get done” or “Daddy feels frustrated because he can’t find his iPad”. 

It’s the because that is important here as this is what we are teaching.  I am having a feeling because of an experience.  

Of course illustrated story books offer a wealth of opportunity to discuss the “emotion stories” of various characters in the images.  You might say “Wow, Peppa Pig looks really sad there.  See how her face is all droopy? Why do you think Peppa might be sad?” 

If your child isn’t quite up to developing their own story, you might suggest one for them.  Out and about, billboards, bus shelters, busses, newspapers…any image at all can be an opportunity to practice creating “emotion stories”.  

Finally of course, use other people around you. When out and about many scenarios can be fodder for practice. 

It all depends on your creativity and ensuring your focus on the because.  Happy story hunting!