Helping Children Handle Big Emotions: The Name it and Tame it Activity

This is a time when we may all be experiencing a lot of big emotions-uncertainty, anxiety, fear and frustration, just to name a few. Since parents and kids are spending a lot of time together in their houses, it is also a time when these emotions may feel like they are getting out of control. If your child starts to show big emotions, like anger or frustration with something, what can you do to help your child (and yourself) handle these big emotions?

Try the Name it and Tame it Activity!

This is a two-part activity. The first step is to practice recognizing and labeling feelings (name it), the second step is to think of things that kids can do to handle their feelings in helpful ways that get them back to calm (tame it). (For younger children it might be helpful to spread the activity across two sittings.)


  • Paper/blank note cards to draw & write on
  • Writing/drawing/painting materials
  • Empty shoe box or similar
  • Glue or tape
  • Access to a mirror
  • Printed images from the internet (optional)
  • Camera (optional)

Name it…

The first step will be to create faces with different emotions and discuss what it feels like to have these emotions.

Start with calm. It is good to start with the feeling of being calm (or happy), that way we have a recognizable place to return to when we get upset. The first step will be to help your child recognize (“name it!”) and draw a self-portrait of what they look like when they are feeling calm or happy. It is especially helpful to draw your child’s attention to what the different parts of our faces do with different expressions to help recognize and draw feelings. The mouth, eye brows, eyes, and area between our eyebrows are often the most distinctive.

Look in a mirror and practice naming feelings: Help your child recognize feelings by asking questions about what our faces look like and what it feels like in our bodies when we have this feeling.

  • What does your face look like when you are calm and happy? What are your eyes and eyebrows doing: is there a wrinkle between your eyes or nose? What does your mouth look like?
  • Talk about what it looks and feels like to be calm. What does it feel like inside when you feel calm? Are your muscles tight or relaxed? Is your breathing slow and even, or really fast? Do you feel hot or cold in your body, or just normal?

Now draw or paint a self-portrait of feeling calm and happy on one of the note cards.

Focus on a not-so-good feeling. Do the same thing for a particular emotion your child may be struggling with. (Maybe you have noticed they are experiencing a lot of frustration and anger when playing with others, or perhaps anxiety or fear during a transition time.) It is not necessary to talk about the situation if it will upset them, or if there is no situation, you can just choose a common feeling you want to help your child learn to cope with. Use the same kinds of questions above, and draw a self-portrait of the feeling you are going to “tame”. Now glue or tape the self-portraits to the top of the shoe box, on the left the big feeling face (name it) and on the right, the tame, or calm face.

Talk with your child about how everyone feels not-so-good feelings, and that’s ok! What is important is how we handle our feelings. It can be hard to control big feelings, but with some practice and hard work we can learn helpful ways to tame our not-so-good feelings. The first step is to understand what we are feeling so we can think of what we can do to help ourselves. This is why we practiced what feelings look and feel like so we can learn how to name our feelings. The next step is to think of how we can handle our feelings in helpful ways so we feel better.

…and Tame it!

The second step is to talk about helpful ways we can handle our feelings that help us return to feeling calm, and write or draw these ideas on cards or paper. The goal is to create a handful of helpful images to go in the box that will prompt your child to try a strategy the next time they are feeling upset or overwhelmed.

Plan helpful ways to handle feelings. Work with your child to come up with different ways they can cope with or handle their big feelings in helpful ways. You can draw these ideas or print out pictures from the internet. If you have access to a camera and printer, you can take pictures of your child doing these calming or helpful activities.

Some possible ideas:

    • Taking deep, slow breaths. Practice inflating our belly like a balloon and then blowing it out slowly. You could call this blowing bubbles (and actually practice blowing bubbles), or blowing out birthday candles, or blowing out all the fire in your belly like a dragon = “dragon breaths”.
    • Asking mom or dad for a hug. Talking to a trusted adult and asking for help to handle our feelings or problem solve.
    • Taking a break. Going to a calm, safe place. Building a blanket fort, finding a quiet corner, sitting on your bed, getting a drink of water, count to 10.
    • Reading a favorite book, hugging a favorite stuffed animal, cuddling under a heavy blanket, or rolling yourself up like a blanket burrito.
    • Washing hands in warm water, alone or with a parent or teacher, or holding a warm, damp washcloth to the forehead can be very soothing.
    • Doing something active. Learning stretches like yoga, or just reaching waaaaay up high and then waaay down low, and side to side. Standing on one leg and balancing while stretching out or up. Going for a walk, or running around somewhere safe, jumping rope, shooting basketball or bouncing a ball against a wall, riding a bike.
    • Drawing, painting, using sidewalk chalk, or coloring in a coloring book.
    • Minding your 5 senses: Find and label something you can hear, see, smell, touch, and taste. Or multiple things if you need more time. This can be a really helpful grounding activity for anxiety.

When you have 3-5 ideas drawn and labeled, these can go in the box.

Now your child has their own, personalized tame it box! When they feel upset or worried or stressed, you can encourage them to name and recognize what they are feeling, and then try one or two of their tame it strategies. We all feel big feelings sometimes, and that is ok! What is important is learning how to handle our feelings in helpful ways to get back to calm.

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Text and image: © Kids In Transition to School 2020


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