Behavior & Environment

How to Help a Child Manage Their Big Emotions

< back to blog home

Understanding and managing big emotions can be one of the most challenging skills for children (and adults) to develop. When young children experience intense feelings such as anger, impatience, fear, sadness, guilt, or even joy, they can often become overwhelmed. This can make it difficult for them to navigate situations appropriately.

As caregivers and parents, we know the first step in helping a child manage their emotions is to help them calm down. But how can we effectively do this? Simply asking or telling a child to calm down, explain what happened, or express their feelings usually isn’t effective. In fact, it often escalates the situation. In those intense moments, a child is so engulfed in their emotions that they’ve lost access to the part of their brain that processes complex thoughts and responses. They’re left with only the most basic reactions: fight, flight, or freeze.

So, what can we do when a child is overwhelmed by their emotions and unable to move through them effectively?

Here are some compassionate strategies:

  1. Acknowledge the Present Moment: Stay with your child and acknowledge what is happening right then and there.
  2. Validate Their Feelings: Recognize and validate their emotions by acknowledging what they might be feeling. Let them know that big feelings are normal and that what they are experiencing is real and valid for them.

Try to avoid:

  1. Denying Their Feelings: Avoid saying things like, “Oh, you’re not really mad at Sam.”
  2. Judging Their Emotions: Refrain from comments such as, “That’s nothing to get upset over.”
  3. Diminishing Their Feelings: Don’t say, “I don’t know why you’re this upset.”
  4. Rushing Their Emotional Process: Steer clear of pushing them to move on quickly with remarks like, “Okay, it’s time to let it go.”

Instead, simply acknowledge their feelings, offer physical comfort if they want it, and be present with them. This approach helps the child calm down and reengage their thinking brain, making it easier to address the situation more effectively.

Managing our own emotions during these moments is equally important and often the most challenging part. As caregivers, we can struggle with a child’s intense emotions and may find ourselves caught up in our negative feelings and unproductive reactions. Moving past our triggers to guide a child through their big emotions requires self-awareness, personal insight, and a lot of effort. Remember, having someone acknowledge your feelings and experiences can be incredibly helpful for you too!