One of the biggest — and toughest — jobs parents have is helping children manage strong emotions. When our child is acting out or has an emotional outburst, it can make us as parents feel anxious, helpless, and sometimes angry. Typically, those feelings are remnants from how we were raised. Parenting emotional children may sometimes feel overwhelming.
Recognizing our own responses in the moment is so critical to effective parenting. But this is often easier said than done!
Understanding a bit about how children develop emotional awareness can help parents understand their child’s behavior better. This knowledge can help us avoid making negative judgments and allow healthier ways to help children manage their emotions.
Young Children Express Feelings Through Behavior
Children handle emotions and express distress differently, depending on age.
Younger children use behavior, not words, to express emotions. Signs of stress in younger children include:
- Being clingy
As they progress through elementary school, middle and high school, children may learn better impulse control. They may be less obvious or direct about what is troubling them. Yet, they are likely to still feel overwhelmed by strong emotions at times. You may see signs they are struggling such as:
- Talking back/sassing
- Being mopey
- Being angry
- Spending more time in his or her room
- Giving short answers to your questions (like they could say more but aren’t for some reason)
On top of this, all parents struggle with managing their own emotions. Your child’s lack of control or unwillingness to talk more can stress you out too.
The good news is, helping emotional children deal with strong feelings is learnable. Here is how to make your way more calmly through difficult moments with younger children (preschool and early elementary school years).
3 Parenting Skills To Help Children Manage Emotions Better
Three skills will help you manage emotional distress in yourself and in emotional children:
- Observation (what you notice)
- Intuition (your gut feeling)
- Self-care (taking your own time out)
You can start with whatever level of these skills you have today.
Skill #1: Observation
Noticing Signs of Emotional Stress In Younger Children
How do you know that your toddler or elementary school child needs help managing emotions? The sooner you can notice your child is having trouble behaving or returning to a happy or pleasant mood, the sooner you can step in. Your response can provide needed support and decrease their need to communicate in undesired ways.
Young children often use nonverbal behaviors to communicate their feelings. That’s why it’s important to take time to observe and decode what their behavior is saying.
Noticing and even saying what you notice can help children understand what they are feeling by putting words to their behavior, and what to do with emotional energy.
The Power of Compassion for Emotional Children
Compassion is so very important to help children manage their own emotions. No parent likes to hear whining or be yelled at. But there’s a danger in simply punishing the child for expressing emotions. Punishment for emotion-driven behavior can often feel to the child like rejection, like his or her feelings are wrong.
When children repeatedly find they can’t get help when overwhelmed, they can end up feeling bad about themselves. They may believe their emotions make them unwanted, and helpless to manage strong feelings alone.
You don’t have to accept impulsive behavior especially if it endangers others. But you can help a child learn to manage behavior by noticing his or her emotional needs.
Say what you notice and guide children to places where they can be safer and work out their feelings with you:
- “I see you’re upset. But there’s no running here – let’s go outside.”
- “Oh, no we can’t hit people. Come punch this pillow if you need to get out some feelings.”
- “What a loud voice! Can you show me what’s wrong?”
Skill #2: Intuition
Checking Your Gut Feelings to Understand Your Child
Use your relationship with your child and your intuition to decode what’s going on.
Even if your toddler doesn’t speak yet, you can ask simple questions to show you see the upset:
- “Hey, what’s going on?”
- “Are you okay?”
- “Do you have a big storm inside?”
- “Why are you running so fast?”
No matter how much you’d like your child to shape up and behave, now is the time to be present to understand what their behavior is trying to say so you can help them learn.
“You wanted to pour the water on the floor. But we took the cup away, and you are angry. I get mad, too, when I can’t play as I like. “
Skill #3: Self-Care
Taking Time Out to Sit With Emotions
When young children lose control of behavior and emotions, you may need to remove them from the situation temporarily. This is often called a time out.
Time outs often get a bad rap, but when done in an emotionally engaged way, they are very effective.
I don’t see time out as a time for punishment. It is a time to regulate. Time out is about taking care of overwhelming feelings. Time outs are for self-care.
Feelings happen — and no one is bad for having emotions. This is true for emotional adults and emotional children. Emotions are not taboo.
If time outs are used as a punishment, no helpful learning will result. If the message is the child is ‘bad’ or their feelings are cause for rejection, the time out can actually be harmful.
A healthy and helpful time out recognizes when feelings have become too much.
Managing your own feelings while your child is upset is an invaluable parenting skill. Your child will learn a lot as you model a skill you want them to learn.
How to Take Time Out
In a matter-of-fact way take your child to a place where they can be upset and express it in a safe way. If possible, have a seat next to your child. A time-out is not done in isolation – that can send the message that you as the parent cannot handle the child’s feelings. Let them know you are there. Show that you see their hurt, anger or upset. Set a timer to let them know the time out is not indefinite.
In general, it’s best not to talk too much. Remain a calm witness and encourage breathing by modeling it yourself – deep breath in, slow exhale out. When your child calms down, then you can talk.
You and your child can experience the value of sitting with emotions that have gotten too strong for one person to hold. You can connect and regroup until you’re both calm enough to notice what is going on.
Ideally, time out for preschoolers and young children teaches them it’s more important to make space to address out-of-control feelings before trying to accomplish whatever task or activity is at hand.
Self-Care Tips During a Time Out
These steps can help both you and your child regroup during a time out
- Take a couple of deep breaths.
- If appropriate, hug and rock or pat your child with a gentle rhythm
- Let your child cry if he or she needs to cry
When your child is calm enough to use words or nod answers to your simple questions, you’ll be able to work out together what to do next.
Now you can ask questions to help plan what’s next.
- Do you want to go back to the playground?
- Do you need to rest?
- Do you want a “do-over” — to try the activity again?
Time out with your child does isn’t about treating their feelings as ‘bad’ or unacceptable. It’s about tending to overwhelm as the most important thing. It’s not about making it ‘wrong’ to feel overpowered emotionally. The idea,”you can’t belong with those feelings” can become an emotional scar. Rather, time out is about giving your child the opportunity to tolerate intense feelings and eventually start to name them.
The time out can be helpful for you to regroup too. Your calm presence helps them learn to navigate out of overwhelm, choose what makes the most sense for them, and move forward when they are ready.
Emotions Can Become Guides
As you keep noticing, using intuition, and taking time out to process feelings and regulate, these skills will grow stronger. Over time, you’ll find more confidence and trust between you and your child to handle bigger challenges as they come.
Seeing your child lose control can be a challenge. But accepting the emotional struggles you see teaches your child how to manage strong feelings. Then as your children grow, they can begin to use emotions to guide well thought choices, instead of emotion-driven ones.
We Are Here For You
If you’d like some support managing your feelings and helping your child manage theirs, we are here for you. We offer individual and family counseling in Alexandria Virginia. Call us at 703-768-6240