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If you are looking for solutions on how to help young kids deal with strong emotions, I hope that you'll find some good ideas in this article.
My son was playing quietly in the children room of the museum. From time to time, he was coming to me to show me how tall his tower of wooden blocks is. He was so proud of his colorful construction! Then, out of the sudden, another child entered the room and rushed to the table where he was playing. Without any notice, he just destroyed my son’s tower! Completely!
What followed was a complete tsunami of anger!
Bogdan wanted to hit the other child. To throw wooden blocks towards him. He even tried to move the whole table on the other side of the room. I managed to stop his attempts but it was really hard to convince him to sit down with me for a while to calm down.
I could see his red cheeks and clenched fists and I knew that he was very mad!photo credit: Evgeny Bakharev / shutterstock.com
It wasn’t the first time when he faced such an intense emotion. And it certainly wasn’t the last time! But in time he is learning to deal much better with his emotions. And, at the same time, I am learning how to help him more when it comes to managing strong emotions.
It was so hard to help him during his first tantrums! I felt so hopeless!
But luckily things got better.
There were two very helpful lessons that we both learned along the way:
– The emotions aren’t good or bad. All emotions are normal and we need to allow ourselves to feel them.
– What really matters is the way we react to the emotions. We cannot control how we feel but we can control how we choose to act.
Young kids need to learn how to deal with their emotions. They need to understand how they can tame the emotions. And most of all they need to learn how to make the right choice when they feel overwhelmed by a strong emotion.
Teaching kids how to deal with strong emotions
Here are the tips that really made a difference for us.
I learned most of them by reading books and articles written by Laura Markham (the author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting“) and Tina Payne Bryson (the co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind“).
All young children have difficult moments when they feel completely overwhelmed by their emotions and it’s our job as parents to guide them through the process of dealing with these intense feelings.
1. Offering empathy and helping the child name the feeling
For me, what helped most was to make a short exercise and think about what I need most when I feel angry or sad. If someone is just telling me to calm down or is trying to explain to me that I have no reason to be angry or sad, this doesn’t make me feel better. On the opposite, it can actually make me angrier.
The same principle applies for kids.photo credit: Alena Ozerova / shutterstock.com
They need to feel that the parent understands them and acknowledges their feelings. So instead of saying “calm down” or “stop crying” it’s way better express our empathy.
Phrases like “I see that you are very sad” or “I understand that you feel so angry because of what happened” are a great way to show to the child that his feelings are accepted and understood.
When the feeling becomes less intense and we can talk with the child about what happened, it is very useful to help him name the emotion. Psychologists proved that identifying and naming the negative feeling is the first important step to overcoming it. Asking “how did this make you feel?” is a perfect way to encourage the child to express his feelings.
2. Allowing children to talk about their emotions and understand them
When children go through an emotional meltdown talking is not really helping because they cannot really hear us. But afterward, a discussion can help the child understand what happened and what can be done better next time.
You can start by inviting your child to tell you what happened. Even if you saw what happened, it is important to see the child’s perspective. And you can use this opportunity to name the emotions and to guide the child to a better way to handle the emotions next time.
Asking questions helps the child learn from the experience.
Here are some questions that I usually use:
“What happened? Why were you so angry/upset/sad?”
“How did this situation make you feel?”
“And how did this anger/sadness feel in your body?”
“How did this feeling make you react?”
“Do you think there could be a better way to react when you feel this way?”
“What would be a better choice for next time you find yourself in a similar situation?”
And the most important question that I always ask at the end: “Do you need a big hug to help you make this anger/sadness disappear?“.
This is a wonderful question because it allows kids to reconnect with us and let go of the negative feelings! I let my son stay in my arms as long as he wants. At the end, he is happy again and willing to act better the next time.photo credit: Alena Ozerova / shutterstock.com
The most important lesson that I want my son to learn is that we cannot choose the way we feel but we can always choose the way we behave when we have those feelings.
3. Being a role model when it comes to handling strong emotions
This may seem simple but it’s not always that easy! At least not for me. When I am tired and Bogdan has a tantrum it’s sometimes really hard to keep my calm and be gentle and empathetic. But I know that this is so important for both of us!
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” (L.R. Knost)
This is so true! Kids look up to us and they learn more from what we do than from what we say. So we cannot teach them to handle their emotions if they see us having our own “tantrums” when we get angry!
The biggest mistake that I used to make when Bogdan started to have meltdowns was to get into an argument with him. I was trying to convince him using rational arguments and it never worked!Because when kids are overwhelmed by emotions they don’t need rational explanations.
They just need our support to be able to calm down. Once they have the guidance they need to overcome the strong emotions, they will be able to listen to us and learn better ways to behave.
Because when kids are overwhelmed by emotions they don’t need rational explanations. They just need our support to be able to calm down. Once they have the guidance they need to overcome the strong emotions, they will be able to listen to us and learn better ways to behave.photo credit: Alena Ozerova / shutterstock.com
So in most cases, the best thing to do is just to be there for my son. To reassure him that I understand his feelings and that he can share them with me. To reconnect with him before starting any discussion about what went wrong and how he can handle things better.
And this works every single time!
I don’t manage to keep my calm every time when he is having a difficult moment. I try to be a calm mom and be gentle with him even when I am angry but I still make mistakes.
In those situations, I always apologize to my son!
And this is another way to teach kids about emotions. They learn that we all make mistakes and let our emotions affect the way we act but we can always try to make things right after we did something wrong.
4. Building a connection instead of enforcing a correction
Tina Payne Bryson explains in a very simple way why punishments and time-outs are not the right answer to a child’s emotional meltdown. Punishments send the message that the emotions are bad and they are unacceptable. Kids learn to hide their emotions from us and to keep these negative feelings inside them.
On the long run, this only leads to more misbehaviors and a bigger disconnection between parent and child.
We certainly don’t want this! On the other side, positive discipline teaches the child to regulate his emotions and builds a stronger relationship that contributes to the child’s healthy emotional development.
The principle of handling strong emotions in a gentle way is really easy: It basically means to put connection first! We need to listen to the child, empathize with their feelings, and offer our guidance. Once this connection is built we can go to the next step and discuss the issue.
When kids feel safe and understood, they are more likely to learn to regulate their own emotions.
They learn to identify the strong feelings, to name them, and to avoid the misbehave. It’s not easy and it takes time for them to learn this but it’s totally worthwhile!photo credit: Alena Ozerova / shutterstock.com
We never punished Bogdan and we always tried to use the gentle guidance instead. And I can really see the positive effects! He learned to keep his emotions under control better and he truly tries to make the right choice even when he is angry or upset. Of course that he doesn’t manage to do the right thing every time. He is just a child and it’s normal for him to sometimes have difficult times!
But even when he does something wrong he always comes to me to find together a better way for next time. And these moments are what I love most about positive discipline!
5. Talking about emotions in a playful way
This is the easiest part and the most fun! Talking with kids about emotions when they are calm and receptive is a great way to teach them about how to handle strong feelings.
Here are some activities that I like:
– Learn about Emotions with Build-a-Face Story Stones from Where Imagination Grows
– Managing Big Emotions: Printable Emotions Cards & Matching Game from Childhood 101
– EMOTIONS FLASH CARDS from Mockeri.
Here are some great children books about emotions:
– Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley
– The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
If you wonder how our little incident from the museum ended up, let me tell you that it actually had a happy ending! 🙂 After Bogdan managed to calm down and we talked about what happened, he returned to the boy and told him that what he did wasn’t nice. Then he started to rebuild his tower.
After a while, the other boy joined him with a much calmer attitude and they played together very nice!
I watched them with a smile on my face. Kids are really amazing because they can truly let go of all the negative feelings and start over with their whole heart. And this is a precious lesson that we can learn from them!
Download your cheat sheet
If you want to have all these tips at hand anytime you need them, I’ve created a cheat sheet that you can download and print. It will be very helpful anytime your child deals with some strong emotions and you want to offer him support and guidance.
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photo credit preview photo: Alena Ozerova / shutterstock.com – photo credit Pinterest photo: Guas / shutterstock.com