Handling Your Child's Big Feelings
What does your typical day look like? Maybe it consists of getting the kids ready for school, going to work, completing chores and running errands, all while trying to stick to a bedtime routine. Throughout the day we probably have a range of emotions that come from our experiences and interactions with others or even our own thoughts. Most of the time we are able to logically explain our experiences, thoughts, and sometimes emotions – making them easier to process and work through.
Now, what does a typical day look like for your child? Most likely school, playing, homework, after school activities or bored with summer, or tired from interacting with other kids or adults – all situations in which kids most likely experience a range of emotions and thoughts too. Imagine having all of those emotions and not really knowing what they are or how to work through them. This can sometimes lead to tantrums, crying, screaming, and sometimes silence which can all feel extremely overwhelming for parents.
We’re going to share some tips for handling your child’s emotions. Addressing your child’s feelings shows them that you care, want to understand them, and that you even take time to accept and work through your own emotions.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings with words.
It might seem simple, but sometimes parents find it difficult to pinpoint the feeling a child has behind the crying, screaming or silence. For example, your child was supposed to attend a field trip with their class but it was cancelled the morning of. You tell your child and they begin to cry or scream. This is a great opportunity to acknowledge the feeling you are witnessing, with words. “You were looking forward to going on the field trip. How disappointing.” Or “It can be so upsetting to not spend your day how you imagined.”
Important: Through all of these tips it is important for parents to acknowledge their own feelings in the moment. Do you think that you can talk with your child in a calm and approachable manner? If not, maybe you need some time to cool off and return to the conversation later. Communicating that you need some time and space and will return to speak with them is ok. Children pick up on our feelings through listening to our tone of voice, reading our facial expressions, and even our body posture. It is important for us to use a calm, gentle voice, bring ourselves down to their eye level, and not force eye contact when trying to speak with them during big emotions. Kids are more likely to be receptive to us when we show that we are listening and model that we can be calm in difficult situations too. This doesn’t mean that you can’t accept the current feeling you’re experiencing, it asks you to become aware and mindful of how your own feelings may impact how you interact with your child.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings with writing.
Scenario #1: Your child is upset that they cannot complete their art project because you ran out of supplies. “Oh no! We don’t have all of the supplies for your art project. Let’s make a shopping list.”
Scenario #2: Your child sees a toy at the store and really wants it. “You really want that toy. Let’s write that down on your wishlist.”
Acknowledging the feeling your child has and then creating a follow up step to write down tells your child that their wants aren’t being ignored. Creating and writing down an action plan also shows your child that this is something they can do too!
Honor your child’s feelings with nonverbal communication and brief acknowledgement.
How do you acknowledge someone’s feelings by being nearly silent? Think about when you’re telling someone a story and sharing something with a friend, a head nod or head shake, “Mmm,” “Gosh,” “Ugh!” or “Ooh” lets you know that they are paying attention to you. These nearly silent actions can be used with children and just show that you are invested in understanding their experiences and validating their feelings.
Remember: We can accept ALL feelings our child has and some actions need to be limited.
Set Limits Gently
When you acknowledge a feeling and then say "but" (i.e. "I know you're wanting ice cream for dinner BUT that's not healthy.") your child really only hears the second half of the sentence. It would be like your coworker saying "I know you wanted that promotion BUT the boss felt like someone else would be a better choice!" So instead of using “buts” use “The problem is…” or “Even though you know…”
“You’re having a lot of fun at this party and want to stay. The problem is we have to go get dinner before the store closes.” Here's an extra tip to ease their powerlessness: add choices! “Do you want to choose a side for dinner? Or “Do you want to choose the movie we watch after dinner?”
Match Their Expressions
Their eyes are opening wide while telling you something that was surprising or exciting at school today. Widen your eyes, change your tone of voice, and add drama! “Wow! You were sooo excited to see the dinosaur books!”
Don’t Overwhelm with Questions
Finally, resist the urge to ask questions of your child who is distressed. It can be difficult to not ask questions when your kid is crying, screaming, or inconsolable, because you may want to have a logical understanding of their experience and help them create a solution. When children are in distress, or have really big emotions, it's hard for them to access that part of the brain that thinks logically. Acknowledging and validating their feelings and asking questions at a later time to have a better understanding works much better.
Handling your child’s emotions allows them to understand what they are feeling and come up with coping skills. Using these tips will be helpful in the long run as your child will continue to feel a variety of emotions throughout life.
If you feel like you're having difficulty connecting with your child, seek out some parent coaching. If your child seems like they struggle with big feelings more than other children their age, reach out for a consult and see if there's a way we can help.