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6 strategies to help your small child process their big feelings

When our children get upset, most of us get upset, too. If the child is angry at us, we feel defensive or like the child's feelings are unwarranted. If he's upset at something else, we want to make him feel better, to make the emotions go away, as if emotions are dangerous. But the struggle is how we learn.


Your child isn't creating those feelings, and he needs your help to manage them. The only way to resolve emotions is to go through them.

Here's your game plan.

1. Calm yourself first

  • Use your pause button: Stop, drop your agenda (just for now), and take a deep breath before you engage with your child.
  • Remind yourself that your goal is to calm the storm for your child, not escalate it.
  • Don't take your child's emotions personally. This isn't about you, even if she's screaming “I hate you!” This is about her: her tangled-up feelings and still-developing brain.
  • Calm yourself with a mantra: “It’s not an emergency” or “This is an opportunity to be there for my child when he’s upset.”
  • Notice the sensations in your body.
  • Notice if you feel annoyance, or the urge to make your child’s feelings go away. Decide what your goal is to use this opportunity to build a closer relationship with your child and teach him helpful lessons about accepting and responding to emotions.

2. Connect and create safety

  • Reach out to connect emotionally, and if you can, physically.
  • Create safety with your touch, your warmth, your tone, your attitude.
  • Give your child the verbal and/or nonverbal message: “I will help you…You’re safe...You can handle this.”
  • If you breathe slowly and deeply, your child will usually begin to breathe more slowly.

3. Empathize

  • Match your child's tone. When kids feel that you really get how upset they are, they don't need to escalate.
  • Welcome the emotions and reflect them, mirroring your child’s tone. “You look so mad!” or “You seem a little worried about this sleepover.”
  • If your child is describing a problem to you, repeat back to him what you've heard: “I hear you loud and clear. You’re fed up with your brother going into your room and taking your gum."
  • If your child is expressing anger at you, resist the urge to tell her to be appropriate. Instead, acknowledge the feelings and invite her to tell you what she's upset about. “You must be so upset to talk to me that way, Kayla. Tell me what's happening.”
  • If you don't know what your child is feeling or your child gets angry when you “name” her emotions, “upset” is a good all-purpose word: “I hear how upset you are about this.”
  • Describing what your child is physically expressing helps him feel seen and heard, and can either help you name emotions or intentionally avoid it: “I see you’re biting your lip. You look worried.” Or “Your arms are crossed over your chest like this, and your brows are tight, like this. I wonder what's going on?”
  • Acknowledge your child's perspective. “You wish that….” or “This isn’t what you wanted….”
  • If your child is crying, words can be a distraction. Use them sparingly, to create safety and welcome the emotion: “Everybody needs to cry sometimes. It's good to feel those tears and let them go. I'm right here. You're safe."

4. Double-check to be sure your child feels understood by what you've said

This way, you don't have to worry about whether you were able to accurately reflect your child's feelings. Just ask.

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“Is that right?”

“Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Am I getting that?”

  • Your child may agree—“Of course I’m mad!”—and elaborate.
  • Your child may correct you: “I’m not disappointed! I’m mad!” In that case, try again. If possible, use your child's exact words so they know you're listening: “I’m sorry, Caleb. I see now how mad you are. Tell me more about why.”
  • Or your child may correct you—“I’m NOT MAD!”—even though it's clear that you were accurate in your perception.That's a signal that your child is feeling judged or analyzed rather than understood. Acknowledge the correction and start over, connecting more as you describe the child's perspective: “I hear you, Lucas. You’re not mad. Let me see if I understand. You wanted X. Is that right?”

Don’t fight about what your child is actually feeling. What's important is that she feels understood. Her awareness of what she's feeling will shift as she moves through the emotions.

5. Deepen the conversation

You can do this by offering support, validating your child’s emotion, or simply inviting your child to tell you more.Validation doesn’t necessarily mean you agree, only that you understand why your child would feel this way. Let yourself feel some of what your child is feeling, while you still stay centered.If you really feel the emotion with your child, then you may get tears in your eyes at how heartbreaking this must be for your child.

  • “Ouch, that must have hurt! Want to show me what happened?”
  • "Oh, Sofia, no wonder you’re upset.”
  • “It could be really embarrassing, to have your teacher say that.”
  • “You’re saying that I love your sister more….Ethan, that must feel so awful, to feel that…”
  • “I didn’t understand how important this was to you. Tell me more about this.”
  • “I hear how angry you are about this. What can I do to help make this better?”
  • “So I hear you’re upset because of X and also Y! Is there anything else?” Asking if there's anything else often opens the floodgates to get to the heart of why your child is upset. He may start with what a lousy mother you are for making oatmeal again, and end up telling you that he thinks you love his brother more, or he’s being bullied at school.
  • “Thank you for telling me this. I’m sorry that what I did upset you so much. Please tell me more.” When your child is angry at you, let him know you're listening. You may find out something that will transform your relationship for the better. Or you may find that his anger has nothing to do with you after all.
  • Describe the incident without judging, so your child feels understood. “Lena wanted to play with your doll and you were worried.You said ‘No!’ and hit Lena and you both cried. Right?” Telling the story helps the child to calm down, reflect, and integrate the emotions, as the emotional experience of the right frontal lobe is articulated by the verbal, more rational understanding from the left frontal lobe.

6. Problem solve

Most of the time, when kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. This leaves an opening for problem-solving.

If your child still seems upset and negative and isn’t open to problem-solving, that’s a sign that she hasn’t worked through the emotions yet and you need to go back to the earlier steps.

When your child is ready to problem-solve, resist the urge to solve the problem for them unless they ask you to; that gives your child the message that you don't have confidence in their ability to handle it. If they feel stuck, help them brainstorm and explore options: “Hmmm…..So you think you might do X. I wonder what would happen then?”

Time-consuming? Yes. But you'll notice that as you get more comfortable, you'll move through the steps quickly. Even better, you'll see your child get better at expressing emotions in a constructive way. Emotion coaching raises kids who are more emotionally intelligent. It also helps you stay calm when your child is upset, so it creates a more peaceful household.

Less drama, more love. Win-Win.

Originally posted on Aha! Parenting.

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