Help your young or school-aged child express their feelings and self-regulation needs by sharing an emotional code word.
What are emotional code words? Fun, silly, or made-up words shared between child and caregiver to signal stress or emotional overwhelm.
When to use an emotional code word: Any time you or your child notices warning signs of dysregulation.
How to set up an emotional code word: At a time when parent and child are calm, decide on a special word to say in future situations when your child is feeling tired, stressed-out, or overwhelmed. Link this word to body sensations that your child can recognize, such as butterflies in their tummy, a lump in their throat, their heart beating faster, or feeling dizzy. It also helps to link this word to behaviors that the parent can recognize, such as having difficulty listening, restlessness, or stronger emotional reactions than usual.
How to use an emotional code word in a stressful situation: In a situation where your child seems out of their zone for self-reglation, parent or child should say the code word. The next steps are to:
- Stop what you are doing. Find a quiet or private space to be with your child.
- Parent and child both acknowledge that the code word has been said.
- Connect with your child's emotions first. Get down on their level, practice eye contact, and offer a cuddle or a hug if your child finds them soothing.
- Take 3-5 minutes to help your child re-establish their sense Secure & Calm with feelings first aid!
The benefits: Helping our children learn to name – and then tame – their emotions is hugely beneficial for their social-emotional development and ability to feel Secure & Calm. These benefits can be harnessed through giving our children child-friendly words to describe situations that they find stressful or overwhelming. These benefits are amplified when we respond to our child's emotions using a connect-and-redirect strategy. 
Image credit: USA Today (thumbnail); Netflix (in text)
Cherished children's book character Llama Llama uses the emotional code word "holidrama" to communicate his feelings of overwhelm and anxiety about the holidays to his mama llama.
Llama Llama, Holiday Drama is a picture book written by Anna Dewdney for a Pre-K - 2 audience. Click here to listen to the book read aloud.
Click "more" to hear Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, explain the science behind helping children understand and cope with their emotions using his "name it to tame it" approach.
Dr. Daniel Siegel explains how to help children connect to calm using a "Connect-and-Redirect" approach.
Llama llama uses the emotion code word "holidrama" to describe his feelings about: “Too much music, too much fluff! Too much making, too much stuff! Too much everything for llama… llama llama HOLIDRAMA!”
Giving our children a special word to describe situations in which they feel emotionally unbalanced can equip them with a powerful tool to let us know that a situation is beginning to spiral out of their coping zone.