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4 Play Activities to Help Children Manage Emotions

It's normal for children to feel stressed sometimes. They can have emotional reactions when daily routines change, for example, or when grown-ups in their lives are feeling frazzled.

How children respond to stress depends a lot upon their temperament. A reserved, shy child is more likely to be anxious. A more intense, impulsive or outgoing child might overreact to minor frustrations.

Regardless of how children act out their feelings, it can be challenging to react in a sensitive way. Here are a few ways play can help you stay emotionally anchored while helping your child understand and manage their feelings.

  • Use colors to label feelings


    ​​​​Emotions are complex. One way to help children understand them better is with "color zones," a tool sometimes used by child therapists:

    • Blue = sad or bored

    • Green = calm and focused

    • Yellow = anxious, silly or agitated

    • Red = ​angry, scared or out-of-control

    Identifying and sorting feelings into zones can make for calmer conversations when emotions run high. Instead saying something like, "Stop being crazy!" (which can make kids feel worse), you can say, "How can you get back down to the green zone?"

    Try this: Turn this color zones idea into the basis for a fun little art project. Have kids draw faces to go with each color zone and tape up the chart in a handy spot for reference.

  • Talk about your own emotional zones


    When you find yourself in the yellow zone, talk about how you're feeling. Then say what you're doing to get back to the "green zone," and invite your kids to do it with you. Kids learn a lot from watching parents and caregivers do their own emotional problem-solving.

    Try this: Use bedtime stories as a jumping off point to talk about emotions—the characters', yours and your child's. Consider books such as Where the Wild Things Are or countless others​ where the main character feels deep emotions of anger and frustration. These can be a spark conversation about your own approaches to those feelings.

  • Get their energy out


    Kids often use sensory activities or body movement to channel their feelings—like jumping on a trampoline, getting a bear hug, looking at favorite books or listening to music. Ask your kids what activities get them "back to green."

    Try this: When kids look on the verge of​ being overwhelmed and frustrated, help them pause and take a deep breath. If they're the kind of child who calms down by hiding in a tent until their thoughts settle, remind them they can go to this space. If they love physical movement, trying grabbing their hand and get moving. Challenge them to "follow the leader," then lead them on a 'round the home or yard parade of wacky walks, silly struts, shimmy shakes and more till their mind is cleared.

  • Channel emotions through imaginative play


    Kids are magical thinkers, so remember that they may not want to "talk out" their feelings. It's good to label what you think they're feeling with words, but also give them the chance to mana​ge their feelings without them. This can be through drawing, dress-up or playing with dolls or stuffed animals, for example, or making music that matches how they feel.

    Try this: Set up a "let it out" zone where kids can work out their feelings​. It could be as simple as a blank journal to write in or draw their emotions, for example, or a tub of modeling clay to knead out their emotions. Other ideas: a dress-up basket filled with props and accessories or a box of simple musical instruments and/or noisemakers (think pots and wooden spoons and rice shakers in small plastic containers).


    Of course, it's easier to prevent negative behaviors than it is to manage them after the fact! Try to keep a reg​ular schedule when you can. Includes some special time where you turn off the news, put down your phones, and focus on each other. Activities where you can goof around and laugh also help. These will help your well-being too.

    More i​nformation

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Adapted from Melissa & Doug: Our Blog
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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