Staying in control of our emotions and not letting them control us is a challenge. Let’s face it – many adults still haven’t figured it out, yet we expect our kids to! Emotional regulation and self-control are learned behaviors that require teaching, understanding, and practice for little ones. Play therapy addresses this skill in two major ways: Reflecting Feelings and Limit Setting.
One of the benefits of reflecting feelings to children is that they begin to build an emotional vocabulary. When they hear, “You were angry!” in relation to their sibling taking their toy when they were using it, they learn how to identify their feeling. This also enables them to communicate their emotions effectively in the future when they experience the same emotion again.
One of the benefits of limit setting is that children are given the opportunity to learn how to regulate their own behavior instead of waiting for someone else to step in and control it for them. When they are offered an alternative to the unwanted behavior, “You can choose to throw the ball outside instead,” they have to decide whether to obey the limit or not. They also then learn that actions have consequences.
Another helpful technique for kids to control their emotions is mindfulness. This practice, though not specific to play therapy, has great value for kids as their emotions are so quick to change based on their circumstances. When kids feel that their feelings are always in flux, it makes it difficult to remain calm. Mindfulness is a tool that kids can practice and learn so that they feel more in control of their bodies and emotions, no matter what situations come up.
An amazing book on this topic is Mad to Glad by Angie Harris. One of the most incredible components of this book is that while it teaches kids how to work through their negative feelings, it makes it very clear that no matter how kids feel or how they act, they are always good. One of the most common mistakes that adults make is inadvertently communicating that their acceptance of a child is based on his or her behavior. In this book, it is okay to feel anything, but there are healthier ways to handle those feelings.
Kids need time and practice processing, labeling, and expressing feelings well. The more you reflect their feelings, set limits, and help them understand mindfulness, the better at controlling their emotions they will be!