How can I help my child deal with their emotions?

When children are born, they already have emotional reactions. They can cry in response to frustration, hunger, and pain.

As they grow and learn, they begin to experience other emotions. Your child will experience a whole range of emotions in a single day.

Because of this, it can be difficult for them to understand and process their feelings.

A grumpy child sits being hugged by their parent

Identifying emotions

Young children don’t have the words to describe what they want or how they feel. This can be frustrating for them. At times, it can be overwhelming.

When you teach your child to identify their emotions, you can give them the tools to explain how they feel. This makes it easier for them to deal with their emotions in a socially appropriate way.

Sometimes, your child might have a tantrum or an outburst and you can’t work out why. Often, this is an emotional reaction that they haven’t expressed with words. It is important to talk to them once they’re calm to find out why they acted in that way.

It might have come from a fear or worry they have. Feeling anxious is a normal, human response. It means that, in that moment, their brain didn’t feel safe.

Dealing with emotions

  • We aren’t born knowing how to cope with or control big emotions. It can take some time for your child to learn how to deal with them.
  • Try to be a role model for them in handling emotions. The best way to teach your child to deal with feelings appropriately is to show them with your own emotional reactions. Try to think about how you handle your emotions and be aware of what your child sees you do.
  • Sometimes, your child might not understand why they have reacted extremely to something. They might feel sad or confused about their own reaction.
  • Once they are calm, talk to them about what was happening in their body and in their mind. What thoughts did they have? If they can identify their thoughts, you can begin to teach them how to copy with those thoughts in the future.
  • It might be the day after an outburst by the time your child is calm and able to talk about what happened. That’s okay – it’s important to address their feelings, even if it is the next day.

What to say

  • You could bring up the reaction by recognising what started it and how they might have felt. “I know you were feeling cross with me yesterday because I said you could not go to the park. Did that make you feel disappointed?”
  • Try to show that you understand their feelings. “I would feel the same way if I had been inside all day and wanted to go outside.”
  • Tell them it’s okay to have those feelings, but that they need to express them in a more appropriate way. “It’s okay to feel disappointed and upset, but it’s not okay to throw things at people.”
  • Talk about how they might handle their emotions better in the future. “Next time you feel like you’re going to throw things, could you choose a safe space to go to? Then, I will come and sit with you until you’re calm and ready to talk about your feelings.”

Top tips for teaching them to deal with their emotions

  • Set aside “worry time”. This could be 15 minutes a day for your child to talk to you about any worries they have.
  • Teach them how to use the five-step problem solving tool. You could use this during worry time. Try to prompt them to find the solutions rather than solving everything for them. This will help them develop and manage their feelings.
  • Teach them breathing exercises to soothe stressful situations.
  • Help them choose something that can distract them when they’ve recognised a negative thought or feeling. This could be drawing and painting, playing with a football, doing a word search or even sorting socks!
  • Allow your child to be honest with you about how they feel. Listen to them when they tell you what they think and why they are acting in a certain way.
  • Validate their emotions. You might find it helpful to draw a narrative from previous outbursts and tantrums. This will help their emotional literacy as they can start to learn (and even predict) their emotional response to a situation.
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