How to help little kids deal with big feelings

Giving little kids the tools to express how they are feeling is key to avoiding meltdowns.

How to help little kids deal with big feelings

“You NEVER listen to me! It’s not fair.”

“I want don’t want to go to the store.”


“You ALWAYS get to do what you want.”

Have you ever heard something like this from your child? It’s never easy to hear this from your screaming kid—especially when it’s happening in public. (It always seems to happen at the most public places in the most inconvenient of times, doesn’t it!?)

The fact is, when toddlers feel anger or frustration their first reactions is often screaming, hitting, crying or yelling. As kids get older—preschool or elementary age—they can start to identify the feelings before an explosion. That’s when you can teach them how to handle these meltdowns with the strategically.

We all experience emotions like frustration and anger, but it’s how we handle these big emotions that makes the difference. As a parent, I feel it’s my job to guide my kids and model how to express these BIG emotions they feel in appropriate ways—and between my experiences as a parent and elementary school psychologist, I know the key to that is teaching kids how to use “I statements.”

What is an I statement?

In short, an I statement goes like: “I feel ____” or “I feel ____ when you ____. Can you please ____?”

There are a few variations to I statements. They can be as simple as, “I don’t like when you take my toy.” As kids get older it may sound like, “I feel frustrated when you take the toy I am playing with. Can you please wait until I am done playing with it?”

Why should you use an I statement?

The opposite of an I statement is a you statement.

Examples of you-statements include, “You always do whatever you want and you never think about what I want.” Kids who have big emotions often use these types of phrases.

You statements made when a child is frustrated can escalate the situation quickly. No one likes being ridiculed or harshly criticized. Instead of criticizing the other person with a you statement, I statements teach kids how to express how they feel.

How do I statements help kids deal with big emotions?

It’s not always easy to express your feelings, especially when you are upset. But the sooner a child learns how to confront an issue and express his or her feelings, the easier social communication will become. (And, as a parent you will feel a lot less stressed going to the grocery store because you know the tantrum will be avoided.)

Kids benefit from learning social emotional strategies at a young age. They will already have a handle on difficult conversations and emotions for when they get older!

Next time your child has an epic meltdown, try implementing I statements. Wait until the child is completely calm and you are in a private setting. Then talk about the situation. “What happened? How did that make you feel? Maybe next time, instead of screaming you can try using an I statement.”

Also, be sure to model appropriate I statements to your child. It may seem awkward at first, but with time it gets easier and feels more natural.

How to start teaching I statements

Before a child learns to use I statements, they must be able to accurately identify how they are feeling. After they have gained knowledge and feelings words, you can reinforce effective communication skills by reading books focused on social emotional skills or watching a TV program focused on feelings. (Daniel Tiger’s episode on frustration helped my 3-year-old express her own feelings!)

Talk about what you learn after you read a book or watch a show with your child. Then the next time you are about to experience a feeling crisis in public you will have some tools to help your child calm down and express BIG emotions.

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