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Helping Your Child Manage Their Feelings More Effectively

By Dr. Brian Brown, Associate Director of Residential Life at Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, Illinois

Scientists would love to be able to know exactly when the next volcano was going to explode, spew lava and hot gases into the air, and endanger everyone within miles. So, too, would parents like to be able to predict when their child is going to explode with their frustration or anger. A step toward knowing for the child and parent is understanding the physiological cues that are precursors/signals that something is amiss internally. By recognizing our physiological cues early, we can implement strategies that allow us to manage our feelings more effectively.

Physiological cues are the body's physical response to feelings or emotions. We all have physical responses to various emotional states. Becoming in tune with what our body is physically feeling can act as an early warning system. And, if the child is aware of this early warning system, it can tell the child when and if he needs to implement a specific strategy.

Think for a moment the last time you were becoming frustrated or angry. What sensations did you feel in your body? For some, it may be a tightening in their stomach, a warming of their skin, or even a flexing of muscles in various parts of the body. I am amazed at how often when I ask kids what they were feeling in their body, they are able to identify their physiological indicators rather quickly. Our kids at times aren't sure of the type of emotion they are experiencing (i.e. anxiety vs. anger), but they often know immediately that they feel something physical in their body.

The first step in using the physiological cue system is for the parent to identify their own physiological cues for themselves. By doing this, the parent is able to then share their own cues with the child to help facilitate the child's own recognition. Once this has been accomplished they are then ready to sit down with their child and ask them what their physiological signals are as they are beginning to become angry or are having increased anxiety. At times, their early physical cues are one set of symptoms, and once they are fully angered they are aware of another set of physical symptoms. Write these physical symptoms down for both, as they are becoming angry, and when they are overwhelmed with the anger. The strategies they implement for each state may be different. The next step is developing a set of strategies that the child can use when they recognize their physiological cues.

The key in a child being able to manage their feelings more proactively, is once the early warning system has been triggered and recognized, implementing specific strategies that allow the child to take control. When the child begins to feel their physiological cues, they need to check out what may be causing them. They may be misperceiving an interaction or misunderstanding what is being asked of them. A simple strategy to use is paraphrasing back to the person their understanding of what is being said to them. This allows the child time to process what is going on in the situation and allows them to check for accuracy their understanding. For example, "So, what I are you saying is that I haven't done anything you asked of me today," may receive a response by the parent of, "No, you did pick up your clothes off the floor, but you haven't emptied the trash or walked the dog, and I need you to do that for me now." Another strategy is to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes kids jump to conclusions in their minds, and by stopping and asking clarifying questions they head off the worst-case scenario that is bouncing around in their mind.

When a child is overwhelmed with their anger, they need to utilize other strategies. One of the best is the communication model, "I feel _______ because _______ I want/need _________." This model helps the child structure their feelings, reasons for the feelings (specific to behaviors or situation), and what they need to do or want to have happen to get it resolved. At times, getting space/timeout is needed to allow the child to deescalate. Talking about using this strategy ahead of time, and identifying a couple of places the child can go, allows for it to be seen positively. The child needs to have input on where they want to take space/timeout, and the parent can also identify a place. The parent may be the one asking for space/timeout too, and that can be planned for and discussed. Anytime a person takes space/timeout, the expectation is for that to be relatively brief (5 to 10 minutes), and the individual needs to return to process the situation. Often times the follow up processing may begin with the use of the communication model.

Recognizing your physiological cues allows a person to take control of their feelings in a more proactive way. Developing individual strategies can take many forms beyond what has been discussed here. Finding the strategies that work best for the individual is the key.

Parents must understand that everything being discussed here to use with their children can be used by them, too. In fact, using the cue system and various strategies for themselves can help them be more effective in dealing with their child and life in general. A parent, who is modeling the use of the cue system, reinforces for the child the value of using the system.

Dr. Brian Brown is the Associate Director of Brehm School in Carbondale, Illinois. Dr. Brown has 22 years of experience working with students who have complex learning difficulties and other co-morbid related issues. Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D in Educational Psychology in Counseling, is a Licensed Social Worker, and holds a School Social Work Certification. He serves on the Illinois North Central Association State Board and has received the Southern Illinois University Alumnus of the Year Award from the School of Social Work. Contact Brehm at:, by phone at: 618.457.0371, or via email at: .

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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