We’ve all been there: that awful moment in a supermarket, the cinema, or a restaurant where no matter what we try, our child won’t stop screaming or crying as loud as they can. They can’t be reasoned with, and waiting it out can seem impossibly long, embarrassing, or just plain exhausting. Everybody worries about their child learning to control their emotions.
Helping kids learn how to deal with negative emotions doesn’t mean we are trying to stop them from feeling or expressing those emotions, nor are we trying to prevent them from getting upset. Through helping children learn how to recognise and find healthy ways to express how they are feeling, they can be ready to handle their emotions (big and small, happy, sad, and everything in between) in a way that is healthy and safe.
By punishing children for expressing their emotions, such as sending them to their room to calm down, we aren’t keeping them from being upset. We risk giving them the impression that upsetting, scary, or big emotions need to be handled in private or hidden behind closed doors, rather than talked about and worked through.
Kids need to be able to express their emotions in a healthy way to help them avoid acting out, learn how to deal with what they are feeling, and discover ways they can express themselves without alienating themselves from friends.
Here are seven ways you can help kids learn to handle their emotions:
Practise what you preach
Exhibit the kind of behaviour you would like to see. By modelling healthy emotional self-management and resisting shouting or yelling when we are frustrated, we can reinforced what we are trying to teach kids, showing them how alternative methods can work.
If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated, take time to calm down. Children mimic our behaviours and how we cope with our emotions. Make sure you aren’t afraid to show your emotions – happy, sad, and everything in between. By showing them beyond our positive emotions, we can help kids to realise it is OK to feel whatever emotions they are experiencing whilst modeling good ways to deal with these feelings. By hiding our emotions and responses, kids may think these are feelings that they need to be ashamed of or keep hidden.
Talk it out
Focus in creating an open, honest dialogue with children. The more comfortable they feel opening up and coming to you with the small things, the more likely they are to feel able to come to you with any worries, fears, or bigger problems they may encounter. This can help prevent kids from bottling up big or scary feelings, allowing you to help them work through their emotions and discover solutions for their worries sooner.
If they don’t feel comfortable talking about their emotions verbally, encourage them to write or keep an art journal to express and keep track of their feelings and thoughts This can be a good way to explore and express a wide range of emotions. If they feel comfortable, try going through their journal with them to help them understand and explore any emotions they may be having trouble with.
Accept and acknowledge how they feel
Our natural response when trying to comfort children when it comes to fears or worries we may consider ‘silly’ can be to brush it off or tell them not to be silly, in an effort to calm them down or distract them. By instead acknowledging their feelings, showing empathy and talking through what they find scary or upsetting about it, we can help them accept and process what they are feeling.
We can also reinforce the idea that emotions that may not feel good aren’t dangerous or wrong or bad, discouraging them from bottling up these negative feelings and helping them to express and explore them in a more positive way.
Share positive examples
Showing, not telling can be hugely beneficial – particularly with younger children. Try sharing positive examples of emotions being expressed in films or books you can watch or read together.
Inside Out can be a great movie to help show children that negative emotions aren’t always a bad thing. We need to experience and express a range of emotions – joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust – to ultimately be happy; we can’t just experience joy at all times, sometimes sadness is needed to make us feel better in the long run.
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain is a great book to read together that explores a wide ray of emotions, highlighting that feelings may feel big in the moment but they don’t last forever. This can be a good starting point to help kids name their feelings, and talk about what makes them feel this way. The Colour Monster by Anna Lienas is another great one for helping identify mixed-up emotions.
For children who have trouble expressing their frustration, Millie Fierce by Jane Manning is a good book to show how acting out might work at first, but can have consequences and lead to friends considering them to be mean.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst is particularly good to help kids see that even the worst day filled with feelings of frustration, sadness, or disappointment will come to an end.
Provide guidance, not punishments
Time-outs may be an old favourite, but they don’t help children deal with their emotions. Instead, a time-out can give the message that the emotion that drove them to misbehaving is bad, should be repressed or ignored.
Instead, try offering positive guidance and help them process what they are feeling. By helping them to learn how to recognise and process what they are feeling, we can help children learn positive ways to cope with their feelings, and feel like they can come and talk before things become overwhelming.
This doesn’t mean you can’t give children boundaries. We can let kids be as angry as they want while still teaching them it’s never OK to lash out or hit someone. Try to stay calm and compassionate. Keep reinforcing the idea that emotions aren’t bad, they’re just part of being human. We might not be able to choose how we feel, but we can almost always choose how we act. The more comfortable they are with their feelings, the more likely they are to recognise them, the more likely they are to gain control over how they express and cope with these feelings.
Admit when we get it wrong
At the end of the day, no matter how hard we try to be perfect for our kids, we’re still only human. We’re bound to say or do the wrong thing, or to let our emotions get the best of us at some point. When this happens, talk to your child about what happened and how you behaved. Just because we’re parents doesn’t mean we should be afraid to say we are sorry and to own up to our mistakes.
Be open and honest. Explain how and why you reacted why you did, and share how you were feeling. Relax and acknowledge how your reaction may not have been ideal. This can demonstrate a healthy way to acknowledge when we let our emotions get the better of us, and how we can move on from negative emotional experiences.
How we teach our kids (directly and indirectly) to handle their emotions when they are young can have a huge impact on their emotional well-being and resilience throughout their lives. We’re going to make mistakes, but we’ll also have moments of triumph. No matter what, remember to keep calm and carry on doing the best you can do.