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Our Blog: A Collection of Resources: July 2nd, 2019

Children’s Emotions: How They Work and Behavior Strategies to Try

Parenting can mean helping your child overcome challenging developmental behaviors so they can be a super friend and sibling! It’s important to educate and teach your child how to identify and understand the strong emotions that might lead to challenging behaviors. Once they can identify their own feelings, you can work together to develop healthy ways to process those emotions. This helps them understand how to respond to others’ feelings as well.

We partner with Lauren Spigelmyer, Executive Director of The Behavior Hub, on behavior strategies and social-emotional development to support our teachers in our classrooms. Read on to learn more about behavior and the brain, holistic strategies to use in your family, and more!

The Emotional Brain: Wise Owl and Barking Dog

Knowing how the emotional brain works can help parents understand why aggressive behaviors can occur. The Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development has an insightful way to think about the emotional brain.

First, the emotional brain has three parts:

  • Prefrontal cortex: Logical reasoning part of the brain
  • Limbic system: The “alarm system” and home of the amygdala
  • Brainstem: Part of the brain that responds to the limbic system

    Now, picture a hand. The four fingers on top represent the prefrontal cortex or “the wise owl.” Again, it’s the area responsible for logic and problem-solving. The thumb represents the limbic system or “the barking dog.” The limbic system and amygdala are responsible for emotional processing. The wrist represents the brainstem.

    When children are emotionally activated, the barking dog scares away the wise owl or the logical part of the brain. This can result in those challenging behaviors like hitting or biting.

    Children need the wise owl to return in order to exhibit appropriate behaviors. To bring the wise owl back, you may need to help them calm down. If you correct too soon, they may become even more upset because the emotional part of the brain is still activated. Pause and wait to talk about appropriate behaviors when they are calm and able to listen.

    For more information, along with a visual representation of the wise owl and barking dog, check out this video from Georgetown University.

    Teaching Your Child to Categorize Emotions

    Understanding emotions is an important first step before learning coping mechanisms.

    Spigelmyer teaches preschoolers that emotions fall into four categories:

  • Low energy zone: Tired or sick
  • Optimal zone: Happy, focused, calm
  • Escalated: Frustration or worry
  • Out of control: Aggression, anger; exhibit behaviors like biting and hitting

    For toddlers, categorizing emotions may be difficult. Instead, take a step back and help them identify the emotions they are feeling. Visual aids or demonstrations can be really helpful.

    For example, if you are happy, demonstrate what happiness looks like. Point to your face and smile. Toddlers need to learn the emotional vocabulary before they can begin to categorize them. Books or flash cards can also help as a visual during these times.

    Holistic Strategies to Reduce Challenging Behaviors

    As your children begin to learn how to categorize or understand their emotions, you can work with them to develop self-care strategies. These strategies can help calm the barking dog down and strengthen the wise owl.

    These strategies are easy to implement on the spot. Keep in mind that it takes time to learn these techniques. It takes a month of daily repetition for the skills to stick, so don’t give up.

    That being said, some behavior techniques may work better for your children than others. Be open to trying many until you find one that is most effective. Below are some of the strategies Spigelmyer uses most often with children, parents, and teachers. It’s important to practice them when your children are in the optimal zone so they can build upon those skills during times of escalation.


    Try “dragon breaths.” Have children breathe in for four to five seconds, and then breathe out for as long as they can. The key is to have a big “out” breath.

    Blowing on things can also be helpful for young children, especially if they are active. Try blowing tissues or scarves up in the air.

    Muscle relaxation

    Practice tensing and loosening the muscles in the body to release endorphins. Hold on tight to a part of the body like the toes for 10 seconds, and then release. Parents can use the analogy of having toes in the mud with little ones.

    Sensory-related break or activity

    Do a sensory-related activity to help improve neural connectors that can be damaged from trauma or stress.

    Try “heavy work,” which is anything that children can push or pull that involves muscle movement. Another way to help reduce stress is to suck, blow, or chew on anything that is appropriate. This could be blowing bubbles, sucking on a straw, or chewing a crunchy snack.

    Here are some other emotional techniques to help children pause and refocus before an aggressive behavior occurs.

    Rather than dismissing emotions, help your children work through what they are feeling. It’s okay to feel emotions. We want them to know that whatever they are feeling is acceptable. One of the best ways for children to learn is through modeling. Parents should talk about their emotions and demonstrate these behavior strategies.

    For more tips to encourage healthy social-emotional development, visit our blog post that discusses tips to manage children’s behaviors.

    About Lauren Spigelmyer: Lauren Spigelmyer is the Founder and Executive Director of The Behavior Hub, an organization whose programming provides children and adults with tools based on trauma and neuroscience research that build and strengthen relationships, foster respect and responsibility, teach children to recognize and neutralize their emotional state as well as solve problems, eat well, and use regulating exercise.

    Having been in education for over a decade, Lauren has the knowledge and experience to back her thoughts and has learned what it takes to create impactful, research-supported content. Being an adventurer, she loves to find nontraditional solutions and make sure that boundaries are being pushed.