Helping children navigate big emotions

We all, adults and children, have big emotions. The only difference is children have no filter when it comes to determining the best way to express what they’re feeling in the moment, which may result in unwanted behavior. 

Our culture often teaches children to “get over it” or “suck it up.” These adult responses to kids’ emotions often come from the adult’s own discomfort with emotional expression and desire to get the child to follow directions or “behave.”

But emotions are healthy and important! Our goal is to acknowledge the emotion — while shifting the behavior. 

Manage your expectations. 

Children might not understand why they feel a certain way. Their emotional expression and resulting behavior comes from an automatic response. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is not fully developed until about age 26, is what we need to be able to think through and predict the consequences of our behaviors. 

This is why it’s often impossible to reason with a child in the heat of the moment. 

So how do we get the behavioral change we’re looking for? First, it’s important to manage our own emotional reactions. 

Be sure that your reaction isn’t fueled by anger, frustration or embarrassment. Choose a response you can sustain over and over. Be clear, consistent and compassionate. Make no threats. And if you give a consequence, it must be immediate and not punitive. The goal message is: How you’re feeling is OK; the behavior choice is not. 

Emotions are acceptable.

Your role as parent is to model, teach and help. When you demonstrate your own emotional regulation, you teach your child that emotions are OK. Children experience acceptance of who they are when their emotions are deemed acceptable. 

That doesn’t mean you have to accept the behavior that comes along with the emotion. Help your child calm down by saying: “It’s OK that you feel [sad, angry, disappointed], but it’s not OK to [hit, bite, scream].” 

Then, when the negative emotion has subsided, redirect to the behavior that’s desired.

One of the best things we can teach children about emotions is that while they might feel big or intense, they often subside quickly. 

When we name emotions and give them the attention they demand, they usually don’t last long. Help your child tolerate the experience of emotions rather than running from them.

Attention equals love.

Children experience love through attentive listening and physical contact. Because attention equals love, they’ll do just about anything for it. 

If “bad” behavior gets them attention, you can bet they’ll continue to do it! Kids are smart this way. If kicking and screaming gets Mom to buy me that toy to make me be quiet, I sure am going to do it again! This is the brain of a child.

Adults — due to their own discomfort with emotions, feeling overwhelmed with their child’s behavior or exhausted with yet another tantrum — may move away from the child, ignore or try to distract the child to make it stop. 

This behavior is likely to increase the duration of the “outburst.”

In these situations, stop what you’re doing, get down on the child’s level and offer a hug. You might also say, “I am here when you’re ready.” 

When you do this, you’re modeling for your child that it’s acceptable to have a big feeling. When you stay calm and show compassion, you provide the space for your child to recalibrate after an intense emotional experience. It’s at this point that real behavior change can happen.

Lauren Robbins, a licensed professional clinical counselor, and Elizabeth Hamburger, a licensed marriage and family therapist, operate Wild Tree Psychotherapy, which provides holistic counseling services focused on mind-body wellness for children, teens and adults in St. Paul and White Bear Lake.